LOS ANGELES – It was clear Matt Barnes was feeling better when he swatted away Nuggets forward Jordan Hamilton’s meek runner, saved the ball from going out of bounds and threw it ahead to Darren Collison.

Barnes, who missed the previous 16 games with a retinal tear in left eye that required three surgeries to fully repair it, had checked into the game less than two minutes earlier. The rowdy ovation from the crowd told you what he means to the Clippers’ fan base. His 13 points, three blocked shots, three assists and three rebounds, showed you what he means to the Clippers’ bench.

“He just gives us something extra, you can see it,” Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. “He gives us the toughness, the cutting, the basketball IQ. For a guy that missed the amount of days he’s missed, and to me he’s basically missed the whole year because he’s been in and out, I think that’s the best he’s looked since he’s been with us.”

It has been a frustrating opening two months for Barnes. He came into camp with a nagging quad injury, hurt his calf while the team was in San Diego, effectively costing him the preseason, and sat out three games with a bruised thigh before injuring his eye on Nov. 18.

He was cleared to play on Tuesday and was in uniform Wednesday before officially returning to the court in Saturday’s 112-91 win over the Nuggets. Barnes said he didn’t feel like he was in rhythm, but fatigue was not a problem.


“I’ve had about a week now to really run hard,” Barnes said. “I think the best thing is for me to get my legs. I shot the ball pretty decent. My wind was pretty good, so it’s going to take some game time for me to slow down, concentrate more on my layups and be more assertive with the ball.”

Barnes made three 3-pointers, but missed a couple of shots around the rim that he would normally make. Still, it was a positive first step for Barnes, playing 22 minutes in just his ninth game of the regular season.

“It’s been hard for me to catch a rhythm all season,” Barnes said, “being hurt in the summer time, training camp, beginning of the season and up until now. So, it’s really been a mental season for me so far, kind of seeing where I can help the team when I get back. Tonight, I tried to do a little bit of that.”

He did that even while wearing clear protective goggles that he said bruised his right cheek when he was hit in the face under the rim. While the goggles were a different look for Barnes, it was perhaps the first time this season his play was reminiscent of the guy who was a catalyst for the league’s best bench a season ago. He ran the floor, defended and was disruptive.

“He has a positive impact, even if doesn’t score a basket,” Blake Griffin said. “The way he cuts offensively, the way he plays defensively, and just his experience.”