After 280 days on the sidelines, and with his team trailing 28-18, Ricky Rubio returned to the Minnesota Timberwolves lineup Saturday night with 1:47 left in the 1st period. In the next 7:31 of the 1st half, Rubio threw 3 or 4 of those passes that only he can throw, scored 4 points with 4 assists, and the Wolves roared back to a 54-45 half-time lead.
With Kevin Love out with a new hand injury, the Wolves had looked totally out of sync for most of the 1st quarter. Rubio made and makes the Wolves a different team--a better team, obviously--even without Love. "When he has the ball in his hands, I'm a lot better coach," Minnesota's Rick Adelman said.
In the 2nd half, the Wolves pulled out to as much as a 70-55 lead (on a 52-27 run) when it was Dallas' turn to get it together. Minnesota still led 93-85 with 6:08 to go, but Dallas was moving the ball effectively and getting good looks, while on the other end, Dallas' quickness was forcing the Wolves to take (and make) some very tough shots. But Dallas finally caught up at 97-96 on a Derek Fisher 3 + 1, as Shawn Marion got away with pushing Rubio into the shooter. Minnesota tied it up at 98, 100 and, finally, at 102 on a Nicola Pekovic layup from Rubio at 0:49.6.
Rubio, limited to 18 minutes by his doctors, sat out the OT, but a couple of fast-break buckets (Shved from Kirilenko off the opening tip, and a Kirilenko 2 + 1 from Pekovic) helped the Wolves to a 10-point margin and they never trailed in OT. The final was 114-106.
For Rubio, there were 8 points on 1-of-4 shooting; 9 assists, almost every one of them a memorably pretty play; 4 boards, 3 steals and 2 turnovers.
The difference, really, was Minnesota's big guys, who out-scored Dallas 59-44. Minnesota scored 50 points in the paint to the Mavs' 36. But the Wolves went through long stretches where they simply couldn't guard the quicker Mavericks, especially against a small lineup in the 4th quarter. The 2nd difference in the game was when Derek Fisher and Vince Carter fouled out late in the 4th quarter. It was the loss of their 3-point shooting that doomed the Mavs.
Now the vigil is on for Kevin Love, but it is said he would have "tried" to play last night but was actually scratched due to the flu. So, assuming he is "day to day" at worst, the Wolves' prospects are very very good. They've now survived the pre-Love, pre-Rubio portion of the schedule at 12-9 and with 4 straight wins, good for 6th place in the West--that is, the 1st playoff appearance since 2004.
35-26 the rest of the way would make Minnesota 47-35 overall (.573), probably good for 6th place and a 1st round match-up with a division champ not named Oklahoma City (L.A. Clippers or San Antone?) and a probably 1st round loss.
The fact is the Wolves guards remain small and slow, as Dallas showed last night at times. Small and slow, but smart.
So, then the focus moves to 2013-2014. Can the Wolves stay healthy? Can they (i.e. can Kevin Love) stay happy? If so, home court advantage in the 1st round of the playoffs becomes the realistic goal.
But for now, yeah, I know. One day at a time. Let's get Love back, let's keep Ricky healthy. Let's keep AK47 healthy. The margin for error remains small.