|Ricky Rubio returned to action for the Wolves after nine months of recovery. (Getty Images)|
MINNEAPOLIS -- With four minutes remaining in the first quarter of Saturday night's game between the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves, Rick Adelman looked down his bench and called for Ricky Rubio to check in. It was Rubio's first game since March 9 of last season, when the young point guard tore his ACL in the final minute of a loss to the Lakers.
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As Rubio waited for a stoppage in play so he could enter the game, the crowd at the Target Center deafened each other with a "Ru-bi-o!" chant that reverberated off walls and rafters. When he finally was allowed to come in with 1:47 left in the first quarter, everybody in the building seemingly expressed their joy and appreciation that the second-year player had worked so hard to be back nine months after his severe injury.
And the results were as fun as we remembered.
"He played well," Adelman stated after the game. "Eighteen minutes, nine assists. Obviously, he's moving fine and got tired. That's to be expected. I think that's what we've got to see moving forward. He's not always going to be like this. He was pretty excited.
"When he has the ball in his hands, I'm a lot better coach."
The production was there. In just over 18 minutes of play, Rubio managed eight points, nine assists, four rebounds and three steals. He turned the ball over twice and had eight attempts at the free throw line. He made his first jumper and then missed his other three attempts, all 3-pointers.
But the electricity was surging through him and his teammates when he had the ball. He threw a one-handed bounce pass from the right wing to a cutting J.J. Barea on the baseline that was goaltended for Rubio's first assist of the season. His second assist came on a between-the-legs bounce pass to Greg Stiemsma for a score inside. From that point forward, everybody inched to the edge of their seats whenever Ricky had the ball.
"I told him you don't have to do everything the first game; he can save things for later," Adelman joked about the between-the-legs bounce pass. "He was just making everything happen.
"I think he might have been able to just pass that easily, but that's Ricky."
At the end of regulation, Rubio tried to send this game off with a fairy-tale ending. The Wolves grabbed an offensive rebound, got the ball to Ricky with 11 seconds left and set up a pick-and-roll play. Rubio dribbled right into a 3-point attempt just to the right of the top of the arc. It rimmed out, leaving the Wolves with multiple tip-in opportunities that never dropped.
The Wolves eventually dominated the overtime period for the victory. Rubio didn't play in the overtime because he was just over his pre-set limit of 16-18 minutes of action in his debut.
When Rubio was asked after the game if his night could have gone any better than the nine-assist victory, he quipped, "Yeah, I could have made that shot."
Rubio wanted to join his team in overtime and help them pull out the victory, but the Wolves weren't going to risk his health.
"I felt pretty good," Rubio stated afterward. "I didn't feel tired in the game.
"I was ready [to play in overtime]. I was praying to the training staff and coaches to let me play, but they were right. That's a big injury, and I don't want to get hurt again. I'm happy we didn't need it."
As the team continues to get healthier (Chase Budinger, Brandon Roy, Josh Howard and Malcolm Lee all dealing with knee injuries), we'll get to see them set in place around Rubio and Kevin Love (who missed the game with the flu). Roles will be easier defined than when Adelman has had to create makeshift rotations because of the bevy of injuries that the team has dealt with. And the galvanization that Rubio brings to the team will shine through.
"No words can really describe it," Derrick Williams explained after his best game of the season. "You've just got to feel it. It gets our crowd into it, too. It's just a good feeling."
"It feels great," Andrei Kirilenko said after his first regular-season game playing with Rubio. "This guy has eyes in the back [of his head]. It's always nice to have this kind of point guard. You know if you move good and you're cutting, you're always going to be rewarded.
"I think Ricky's a really pure point guard. Loves to play with the ball and create opportunities for his teammates. It's always a privilege to play with those types of guys, especially if you know how to play without the ball. You know if you get open, you're going to get the ball. And I love it. I love to move."
When Kirilenko was asked if he'd ever previously played with a point guard like that, Andrei reminded everybody of his past teammates before praising Rubio.
"I've played with Mark Jackson, John Stockton, and Deron Williams. I think Ricky is one of those guys who, when he sees the opportunity, he goes there. I learned from the best how to get open and not to get hit on the back [of the head with a pass]."
After the game, Rubio's unselfish point-guard nature wouldn't let him talk about this game in terms of anything but his team. He told reporters about the boost that his team gave him and how great it was to watch them win in overtime. Even when pressed about his flashy pass to Stiemsma, Rubio immediately mentioned how he came up short on two lob attempts to Derrick Williams.
"They gave me a great gift with a [victory] in overtime," Rubio said as he praised his teammates. "I think we're going to do big things with this team."
And those big things start with their young point guard.