MINNEAPOLIS — Sitting in front of his Target Center locker — this time, in the visitors’ dressing room — Mo Williams bandaged a giant bag of ice to each knee and expressed his burning desire for longevity.
There’s a lot of mileage on each of his wheels — 814 games’ worth, to be precise. The Hornets point guard will turn 33 in December, hopefully, he says, in the midst of his 13th NBA season.
The man who showed up in Charlotte and helped keep its season afloat saw Steve Nash retire over the weekend. For the past 18 years, Williams and the rest of the league watched Nash transform his position and take remarkably good care of his body, mind and will during a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
"I’m 32, will be 33 going into next season, so I’m a guy that wants to play well beyond my years of 36, 37," Williams said. "It’s all about staying fit mentally and physically, because it can be mentally draining."
Williams won’t reach the same career echelon Nash did. When this is all over, he’ll move back to the South and devote more time to his AAU basketball academy and his four sons. He’ll be remembered for the time he served as LeBron James’ sidekick. In Minnesota, they’ll remember that strange night during another lost season when he scored more points in a game than Kevin Garnett, Kevin Love and Stephon Marbury ever did in a Timberwolves uniform.
But Williams hasn’t reached the finish line yet. Not this season. Not afterward, either.
"Man, I’m good," Williams said before dropping two dozen points on his most recent former team in a 109-98 victory Sunday night at Minnesota. "I’m still productive. Obviously, I have a lot of good basketball left in me."
That’s not just an old graybeard wishfully speaking things into perceived existence.
Since Wolves coach and president Flip Saunders traded him to Charlotte on Feb. 10, Williams is averaging 19.1 points on 41.3 percent shooting (33.9 percent from 3-point range) and 7.3 assists per game — both career-high paces watered down only by the fact they’re spread over a 15-game sample size. Sunday night, he had 24 points, going 10 for 16 from the field, 4 for 8 from 3-point range and leading the Hornets to a crucial win that bumped them up two spots into the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff position.
The Hornets grabbed Williams from rebuilding Minnesota (15-54) to fill in while Kemba Walker nursed a knee injury. But since his return, the two make a nice complementary pair, sometimes playing alongside one another and other times allowing Walker to rest and Williams to work, or vice versa.
"He fits what we needed," Charlotte (30-38) coach Steve Clifford said. "He’s a good organizer. He’s obviously a terrific scorer. But he just knows how to play NBA offense, and so it’s not just his scoring. He’s had big assist numbers and he keeps us organized, too."
Playing for seven different teams (including Utah twice) since the Jazz drafted him 47th overall in 2003 allows Williams to fit in places seamlessly, Clifford said. His leadership’s been a central theme, too, as a young, Walker-led franchise vies for its first back-to-back postseason berths since 2001 and 2002.
Williams’ vast experience — from playing on bad Milwaukee teams to alongside LeBron James in Cleveland — was a big reason the Wolves inked him to a one-year, $3.75 million free-agent deal this past summer. Minnesota’s young core took to him quickly, calling him "oldie" and benefiting from his tutelage.
"That was my vet," 20-year-old rookie guard Zach LaVine says fondly.
But with the Wolves’ season going nowhere and Ricky Rubio returning from injury earlier this year, Saunders realized he couldn’t give Williams the playing time he merited and develop LaVine simultaneously.
So he started looking for a suitable solution for both parties — a course of action Williams says he appreciated.
"I compliment what Flip was able to do for me," said Williams, who averaged 12.2 points and 6.4 assists here and set a Minnesota single-game record with 52 points Jan. 13 at Indiana, "how he did take into consideration the situation that I would be put in and put me in a great situation to play basketball further on and play for something."
Said Saunders: "We didn’t trade him because he wasn’t a good player. We traded him because at the time, where you’re at, you can get an asset for him. They were a playoff-type team, and Ricky was coming back. . . . If we had Mo there, he needs to play. So he’s going to have to play 25 minutes, and if he plays, that means Zach doesn’t play at all. Where we’re at with our standings and our record and everything else, it didn’t make sense.
Unless you count Sunday evening in front of 15,262 fans, that is.
With Williams helming Charlotte’s offensive charge — namely a 20-6 run spanning the middle two quarters that allowed it to erase a 13-point second-period deficit — injury-bogged Minnesota lost for just third time since 1996-97 when shooting 55 percent or better from the field. Seven of the eight Wolves players to see the floor scored in double figures, including 11 from shooting guard Gary Neal before he sprained his left ankle a minute-and-a-half into the fourth quarter.
Neal, whom the Hornets sent to the Twin Cities along with Miami’s 2019 second-round pick in exchange for Williams, Troy Daniels and cash considerations, had missed Minnesota’s previous four games with a sprained right ankle. He rolled the other one while planting for a layup this time and didn’t join the team for its Sunday-night flight to Salt Lake City for Monday’s clash with the Jazz.
"It wasn’t one of those situations where you want to go back and have a good game," Williams said. "It was just more so a game that we really needed to win."
With the final seconds ticking down, Williams grabbed LaVine and gave him a hug. Shook hands with Saunders. Sat in front of his locker again and acknowledged the "bond and friendships that I’ll have for the rest of my life" forged here in just a few short months, the same as every other stop on his ever-winding NBA sojourn.
Then he gathered up his aging body and got on another charter flight, this time bound for Chicago.
Once the year comes to an end, whether it’s a postseason exit, a disappointing finish on the postseason bubble or something else, Williams will be an unrestricted free agent again. With the way he’s played this year, chances are some team seeking a proven scorer will give him another shot.
Staying ready for such opportunity requires concentration on the minutiae of NBA daily life, no matter how scrupulous. For example, Williams points out, icing one’s knees after pregame warmups and again following the contest itself.
"There are little things you have to do to kind of keep your mind together, because your body goes, and then your mind follows," Williams said. "So you’ve got to keep your body together to keep your mind mentally strong."