Mavs 100, Wolves 94: We missed you, Ricky Rubio.

RUBIO

While Ricky Rubio was gone – 87 days, 42 games – the Wolves went 6-36, sporting the 4th-worst offense and worst defense (by more than 3 points per 100 possessions) in the NBA over that stretch. There were plenty of injuries to go around and all of them contributed to the slide, but Rubio’s absence was both the longest and most critical.

Without him, Mo Williams was thrust into a starting role, the extremely raw Zach LaVine had to play minutes he wasn’t ready for, Corey Brewer and Robbie Hummel had to make out of position cameos at the point, and a recent D-Leaguer on a 10-day contract (Lorenzo Brown) had to play all but 5 seconds of Saturday night’s game. Point guard defense was nearly nonexistent. The offensive playbook shrunk to 5-15% of its original size (according to Flip Saunders).

Not only were the Timberwolves much less functional without Rubio, they were also a hell of a lot less FUN. There were moments of joy while Rubio was out, most of them provided by Andrew Wiggins, but also random nights from Zach LaVine (in Staples Center versus the Lakers), Mo Williams (52 points at Indiana) and tough battles against the Suns, Rockets, Pacers and Kings. But the consistent spark was gone.

So it was a sight for sore eyes to see reports that he’d make his return on Monday night in Dallas, and especially so when he was on the floor at the opening tip. The minutes restriction aside (more on that later), Ricky Rubio was back, as was the concept of fun.

There was this:

And this:

And this:

And this:

And even this (that jumper is looking good, right?):

Having Ricky Rubio back is fun, isn’t it?

Five minutes into the second quarter the Mavericks were up by 21, threatening to turn Rubio’s return into a laugher. But over the next two, the Wolves went on an 11-0 run, thanks in large part to assisted buckets or drawn fouls on passes from Ricky. Mo checked back in with just under five minutes left before the break and the Wolves continued narrowing the gap, closing the first half on a sweet Gorgui Dieng putback dunk to pull within 7.

President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders did a great job keeping Head Coach Flip Saunders in check when it came to Rubio’s minutes restriction, which was set at around 20 minutes before the game. Rubio started each of the Wolves’ first three quarters, checking out approximately halfway through each (4:57 of the 1st, 4:50 of the second and 6:16 of the third) and returned for a four minute stint in the fourth. When Ricky checked in at the 8:24 mark of the final period, Minnesota was down 12. When he checked out at the 4:05 mark, it was a 3 point game.

As much as it sucked to see Rubio on the bench for the games’ stretch run, it was good to see the coaching staff manage Ricky’s minutes smartly in his first game back in nearly three months. And while theoretically they could’ve worked to ensure Rubio was on the floor for the final four minutes of the game, if he hadn’t come back when he did (down 12, just over 8:00 to go), “crunch time” might not have existed at all.

As for that crunch time, the Wolves were down 2 with 1:52 to go and had the ball 20 seconds later with the chance to tie. Pekovic missed a tough shot (Tyson Chandler limited him to 8 points on 4-of-11 shooting), Dallas came back down the floor and J.J. Barea (how fitting, it was J.J. Barea Night at American Airlines Center) hit a tough layup to make it a 4 point game with just under 1:00 left.

On the Wolves’ next possession, Andrew Wiggins missed a contested drive, but Pek grabbed the rebound and kicked it out to Mo on the left wing. In retrospect, it would have been nice to see him make the touch pass over to Kevin Martin on the right wing (who was wiiiiiide ooooooopen) but Mo put up a quick three instead. Tyson Chandler grabbed the board, and Dallas iced it at the free throw line.

Don’t mistake Rubio’s encouraging return with the idea that everything was sunshine and roses for the Timberwolves. They shot about the same from the floor when Ricky was out there (41.7%) versus when Mo (41.3%), and neither figure was good. Minnesota got to the line 26 times, but only shot 13 threes to the Mavs’ 31. They cleaned up on the offensive glass (16 boards), held their own on points in the paint (38 to 40) and fastbreak points (16 to 21), but got killed when the second unit was on the court (the far right column is +/-):

Bench-plus-minus

When Budinger and Bennett check into games, it’s usually together, and leads evaporate quickly. It’s discouraging for both, primarily because the Wolves would like to move the former in a trade and see some development from the latter.

Despite the recurring problems, and another loss, last night was an encouraging one for the Timberwolves. What do you know – a fully healthy top three players (Pek, Martin and Ricky) helped Minnesota hold their own against one of the West’s finest teams. Provided Rubio doesn’t have any setbacks with his ankle, it’ll be very interesting to see what the Wolves look like the rest of the way.

One thing is for sure: the people who follow this team are going to start having a hell of a lot more fun.

We missed you, Ricky Rubio.

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