St. Paul Pioneer Press Wolves’ beat reporter Ray Richardson found the perfect way to describe the beginning of Saturday night’s tilt between the Dallas Mavericks and the Minnesota Timberwolves. With the Wolves’ putrid performance in the game’s early minutes serving as the opening act, the buzz and anticipation for one Ricky Rubio was incredible, and could be felt through the television screen. The crescendo inside the Target Center as the 22-year old Spaniard entered an NBA game for the first time in over nine months continued as the Wolves opened up a nine-point halftime lead, and Ricky’s second act that started in the late third quarter spilled into an eventual encore late in the final frame. Rubio’s three majestic performances were the prelude to a Wolves-dominated overtime period, and #ReturnOfRubio became an overwhelming success.
I’m not sure if it was the minutes-before-the-tip-off announcement that Kevin Love was sent home with flu-like symptoms, despite planning on playing through the right thumb contusion that he suffered Friday night in New Orleans. I’m not sure if it was the fact that 18,174 rabid, Rubio-deprived fans may have been disappointed to not see Ricky Rubio’s name in the starting lineup. But the Timberwolves started off the game extremely flat, and fell behind the Mavs by as many as 13 points in the first quarter before cutting the Dallas lead to 32-22 at the end of the first frame.
On both ends of the floor, the Wolves lacked intensity. On offense, there was very little movement. On defense, the Wolves allowed the Mavericks to run as many easy pick-and-rolls as they wanted, whenever they wanted and wherever they wanted on the floor. Chris Kaman proved to be a tough matchup for Nikola Pekovic on both ends of the floor. He was willing to body-up Pekovic when the Wolves had the ball, and was able to get hot from mid-range, as Pekovic struggled to get out and contest Kaman’s jumpers.
Rubio entered the game to a deafening “RU-BI-O, RU-BI-O” chant and a thunderous ovation with just under two minutes remaining in the first quarter. He did throw a couple of early lob passes just a hair short to Derrick Williams (the Wolves retained possession each time), but other than that, no one could have convinced me that the floppy-haired point guard flinging passes around the court had not played in a game in nine months. He made 4 of 4 free throws and 1 of 3 shots from the floor in his first half minutes, in addition to a between-the-legs assist to Greg Stiemsma and a steal in transition that lead to an open three point shot for J.J. Barea. Rubio’s seven and a half minute stint spanning the end of the first and beginning of the second quarter propelled the Wolves to a 32-13 advantage in the second frame, spurring them to an unlikely 54-45 lead at halftime.
The third quarter opened with the Wolves throwing the ball into Pekovic repeatedly, which worked significantly better than it did in the first half. Pek was able to get deep positioning against Kaman and finally was the recipient of a few favorable rolls on the rim. Kaman (26 total minutes) didn’t play much in the second half, while Pekovic (43 minutes) was on the court for much of it. The decision to not keep Kaman on the floor in the second half was a curious one, as an Elton Brand/Shawn Marion frontline was simply not enough to slow down Big Pek.
Dante Cunningham struggled offensively against the Mavs, shooting just 2 of 7 from the field in his first start of the season, but played well defensively, particularly in the third quarter. Cunningham was in the passing lanes and active to the ball, finishing with three steals and making the Dallas frontcourt work for everything.
The Wolves opened up a 15 point lead in the third quarter, but a 7-0 Dallas run towards the end of the period and a Marion buzzer-beater cut the Wolves’ lead to 80-70. Rick Adelman countered the Mavs’ run by going back to the lineup that dominated the Mavericks in the second quarter: Rubio, Barea, Shved, Williams, and Stiemsma. The group played solidly, but Rubio was quickly subbed out with 9:22 remaining in the game, as his minutes played reached 16 on the night.
The Wolves’ lead was cut all the way down to three points with four and a half minutes remaining, aided by some questionable, if not poor officiating. Rubio re-entered the game with 3:15 left, just in time for Derek Fisher to convert a four-point play with under three minutes remaining, giving Dallas their first lead since midway through the second quarter. Brand set a screen on Rubio, and with Rubio attempting to fight through it, Brand gave him a solid shove in the back, knocking him into the shooter. Rubio was called for the foul, and Fisher converted the shot and the free throw.
A short time later, Fisher shot a corner jumper over a stationary, straight-up-and-down Rubio, but somehow managed to draw a foul. The shot was directly in front of the Wolves bench who, along with Adelman were justifiably apoplectic. Fisher knocked down both free throws to give Dallas the lead, and then proceeded to foul Rubio on the other end of the floor, earning Fisher his sixth foul and earning a disqualification and a seat on the bench for the remainder of the night.
With Dallas nursing a two point lead with one minute remaining, the Wolves tied the game after Pekovic won a jump ball with Brand and scored off of a pick-and-roll with Rubio. On the other end, Shved forced Mayo to his left, into Rubio’s help defense and a fade-away, mid-range, jumper from the baseline that clanked off the rim.
After a Wolves timeout with 34.1 seconds remaining, Ridnour missed a three pointer at the top of the key on a designed play, but Kirilenko managed to pull down the rebound and set up the Wolves with a chance to win on the last shot of the game. Rubio missed a three with just over six seconds remaining, and both Pekovic and Kirilenko had multiple chances to win the game by tapping the rebound in, but they could not convert and time ran out, sending the game to overtime.
With the Mavericks winning the fourth quarter by a score of 32-22 and carrying much of the momentum into the extra period, things looked pretty dicey for the home team. In addition, Rubio started overtime on the bench after having played just over 18 minutes in regulation. Andrei Kirilenko, however, ensured that the game would not slip away. Setting the tone by stealing the tip away from the Mavs and assisting on an Alexey Shved dunk, Kirilenko started the first 1:43 of overtime with 5 points, 3 rebounds, and that beautiful opening assist to Shved.
Minnesota scored the first 10 points of overtime, with O.J. Mayo’s free throws at the 2:17 mark standing as the only Mavericks points of overtime, save for a meaningless Dominique Jones layup with five seconds left in the game. The Wolves converted and-one opportunities from both Kirilenko and Pekovic in the fifth frame, and played stifling defense on the Mavs throughout overtime. After both Fisher and Vince Carter fouled out in the fourth quarter, the Mavericks were forced to give extended minutes to bench players, and even with Ricky Rubio off the floor, the Wolves were able to pull out a tough game on the second night of a back-to-back.
– Ricky Rubio played a hair over eighteen minutes, after being slated to play 16-18 minutes by the training staff and coach Rick Adelman. After the game, Adelman insisted that he would have used Rubio in overtime if he needed him down the final stretch, but with the Wolves quickly pulling away, it became a moot issue. Rubio finished with a gaudy 8 points (6-8 free throws), 9 assists, 4 rebounds, and 3 steals with just 2 turnovers. Remember, he played just over 18 minutes. Without Kevin Love.
– Derrick Williams played what was probably his best game thus far in the 2012-2013 season. In the second quarter especially, Williams played solid defense, was intense and gave effort on the boards, and hit most of his open jump shots. Adelman even went out of his way after the game to commend Williams and say that he did exactly what they needed him to do as part of the second unit. Williams logged an impressive 16 points (5-9 FGs, 6-6 FTs) and 6 rebounds in his 19 minutes.
– Owner Glen Taylor informed NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner that he told Kevin Love to rest up for the back-to-back in Florida early next week. Apparently Love came down with a flu bug today, even while he was preparing to play through his thumb contusion. Josh Howard missed the game as well with a hyper-extended knee.
– The Wolves will travel to Florida to face the Orlando Magic on Monday night at 6:00 CST on the first night of a back-to-back. They will face the Heat in Miami on Tuesday night.