Nine months, six days, and approximately 22 hours after the whited-out Target Center crowd collectively gasped in horror after Kobe Bryant collided with Ricky Rubio, sending the fan-favorite phenom the the floor in agonizing, ligament-tearing pain, fans welcomed him home. Home to the basketball floor to which he brings energy, excitement, and life. Yes, with 1:47 to go in the opening quarter of tonight’s game versus the Mavericks, Ricky Rubio entered the game for Alexey Shved and began his second season as an NBA player. Fans roared with standing cheers and all was well, even as the team trailed by a concerning margin in the early going. The game itself was a roller coaster with an endless list of wrinkles, subplots and chapters. But the obvious storyline was the happiest one: Ricky Rubio is back.
About those chapters…
The first was the opening 10-minute stretch without Ricky. Whether it was the jitters of knowing what was to come, the absence of Kevin Love (more on that below) or just random cold shooting, the Wolves came out flat and trailed 28-18 when Ricky checked in. It was reasonable to worry that the tail end of a back-to-back would cause disappointment on a night hopeful for exultation.
But the struggles wouldn’t last. Rubio and birthday boy Alexey Shved (well, it was his birthday in Moscow, anyway) dominated the second quarter. Ricky christened the occasion with a sidearm whip pass to a baseline-cutting Barea for a layup goaltended by Dallas. Warmed up, he later drove into a gulf in the lane, eyes on the rim and attracting all defenders in range, and fired a righty behind-the-back, right to Derrick Williams’ numbers in the corner. Williams missed the shot (a huge bummer, if you were in the crowd and felt that anticipation) but the Mavs and the world were on notice that everything was now on the table. All of the fakes, all of the tricks, the alley-oops, the steals, all of the game. On defense, Ricky’s tank was overflowing with adrenaline. At times, this was his worst enemy, getting duped into fouling Derek Fisher. But he did not lack any athleticism or agility. Ricky will be the same force on both ends as he always was. Shit, the man had 9 assists in 18 minutes.
And Shved? His first half was almost perfect basketball. He had 15 at the break and defended Vince Carter in the post like a strong and seasoned vet. He cooled off some in the 2nd Half but the early returns on the Rubio-Shved backcourt looked plenty good tonight. Alexey was a +12 tonight, by far the best among starters who sustained the early drumming.
The third chapter of the game was the first half of the 3rd Quarter, culminating in 7 consecutive defensive stops for the Wolves and a 70-55 advantage. The roof was ready to blow off with the Wolves winning big.
But that isn’t how it played out. At all. O.J. Mayo had a sneaky 7 points in the second half of the third, keeping his team within striking distance. The Mavs trailed by 10 points heading into the fourth.
Chapter five was the first 9 minutes 39 seconds of the 4th Quarter. This was the only stretch worse for Minnesota than the opening. Poor shot selection and turnovers toxically combined with poor effort in transition defense to not only forfeit the lead but actually give Dallas a 2-point advantage after Ricky fouled Fisher on a 3-pointer that swished through the net.
The final 2:21, Chapter 6, can only properly be described as tense. Ricky went to the line with a tie score and 2:02 to play and clanked both free throws. Again with a tie score, this time with about 40 seconds to play, Shved was challenged one-on-one by the Mavs’ best player, O.J. Mayo. He guarded him tight but, like so many times this year, avoided fouling and invited the fadeaway jumper that barely missed. With the final shot, the Wolves called timeout. When Luke Ridnour’s three-pointer missed, Andrei Kirilenko corraled the rebound and got the rock to its rightful possessor, Mr. Rubio. Ricky ended up shooting a questionable trey which misfired. But Pekovic had two REALLY good tip attempts that somehow did not find the bottom of the net. Overtime. In the Wolves favor were the foul outs of Derek Fisher (a huge pain in the ass tonight, booed throughout for his crazy-effective flopping, and cheered en route to the bench with foul number six) and Vince Carter, who heated up in the second half.
Overtime was the final chapter, the lucky number seven. The Wolves opened up overtime with a sweet Kirilenko pass, Russian to Russian, for an Alexey Shved dunk. On the other end of the floor, Minny opened up overtime with four consecutive stops and built a 7-point lead that would not get any closer through the final buzzer. Ricky’s Return could be properly celebrated after a big win against a key competitor for playoff spots. With the win, the Wolves up their record to 12-9, which if I’m not mistaken marks the first time they’ve been 3 games over .500, this late in the season, since 2007; Kevin Garnett’s last season in Minnesota.
* As I mentioned, Kevin Love did not play. Shortly before the team took the floor for pregame warm-ups, this came across the Twitters:
I’m not here to investigate or question every Kevin Love injury or ailment, but he missed practice less than two weeks ago with an illness of some kind. After the Woj story, he has shot 7 for 35 from the floor in two games and has a new, terrible body language about him that suggests he’s struggling to cope with this self-inflicted P.R. nightmare. Somebody give the man a pep talk. We need him.
* Building off of last night’s season high, 31-point effort, Pek topped the 20-point barrier for the third consecutive game. Although it took him more attempts than usual (21) some of those were from tip attempts like in the game’s regulation-closing sequence. Pek had 21 points tonight and appears to be finding his groove as a scoring post. Where he struggled was in the opening quarter, defending Chris Kaman jump shots. Kaman dared Pek to come out and guard him. Pek refused. Kaman made 4 straight jumpers. Later in the game, Pek did a better job, not only in defending Kaman but in excellent pick-and-roll rotations, often leading to tipped-away passes and Dallas turnovers. The Wolves had 15 steals tonight (none of them Pek’s, by the book) and Pek’s rotations by the hoop helped cause disruptions.
* Props go out to Derrick Williams who put together a 16 & 6 in just 19 minutes off the bench. Rubio threw two lobs to D-Thrill from the top of the key, but unfortunately they didn’t quite connect this time. Still, Derrick had a very, very solid game and his team-best +16 is representative of his effort in this game.
* I didn’t get a chance to wrap last night’s game. Yesterday’s office holiday party combined with today’s interest and sadness in reading about the Connecticut tragedy to not allow it. I was able to watch the game. New Orleans is ranked 30th out of 30 NBA teams in total defense, and the Wolves showed why last night. Pekovic attempted 18 shots. He made 14 of them. Shved and Luke were awesome, combining for 18 assists and efficient scoring. And Kirilenko, the game MVP in my opinion, was cutting all over the place and had Hornet heads spinning before the Wolves ultimately won by 11 points.
Before ending this one, I’ll share a video that every fan of this organization should watch. Kevin McHale drafted Kevin Garnett in 1995, probably saving this franchise from relocation or worse, and you know the rest. Perennial playoff appearances, despite plenty of front-office blunders, and Garnett’s hall-of-fame-bound career that we all bore witness to. Well, McHale suffered his own tragedy recently when his young-adult daughter passed away from lupus. Garnett, hardly a friendly guy after his team loses, like it did last night, embraced Mac by the bench in Houston. Bigger than sports.
Season Record: 12-9