Friday night’s home opener wasn’t billed as a head-to-head matchup between Ricky Rubio and Jimmy Butler, but that’s what it became, and that’s what it remained, even after the final buzzer sounded. Apparently, Butler told security in the hallway not to let the former Timberwolves guard into “my locker room,” per Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune.
Read as much or as little into that as you’d like. It could have simply been Butler’s lingering frustration with Rubio, with whom he tangled and tussled and trash talked throughout a close second half. It could have been as much as annoyance at the ovations Rubio received before and during the game, thus spurring him to assert his dominance by refusing Ricky entry to “his” locker room. It’s inconsequential, really, because we’ll probably never know one way or the other, but it does add a layer of intrigue to what was a pretty heated showdown.
The night began with both players receiving raucous welcomes to the Target Center. Ricky’s during pregame introductions, when the crowd gave him a deafening ovation, and Jimmy’s a few minutes later, when he took the microphone to “welcome” fans to the renovated space and had to smile, bashfully, as it went on and on. “Alright,” he finally chuckled. “Calm down.”
Calm down, they did, because the first half was sluggish and uneventful. The Wolves struggled with flow and chemistry, as Jimmy overpassed a few times into crowded space and unsuspecting teammates; Minnesota finished the first half with 9 assists and 10 turnovers. The Jazz cleaned up the glass early, but couldn’t convert on second chance opportunities, with Ricky executing the halfcourt offense competently, but unremarkably.
The second half brought the lions out of both players. Their tête-à-tête began with Rubio flopping his way into drawing an offensive foul on Butler early in the 3rd. With 7:37 to go in the game, Ricky drew another favorable whistle, this time a technical on Tyus Jones, a call that seemed to irk the TImberwolves bench. A minute of gametime later, as Ricky and Jimmy battled for a rebound, Ricky hit the deck again. He immediately chirped to the ref for a call, prompting Butler to tell him to “shut the f—” up as he ran to the other end of the court. A passive-aggressive staredown ensued at midcourt, with both players whistled for technicals on account of the scandalous glaring.
(Editor’s Note: The caption of the video is “epic flop,” but I didn’t see anything epic or a flop, in my humble opinion. All about that SEO, I suppose.)
Two possessions later, Ricky turned the ball over, and the Wolves came down the floor and extended their lead to double digits, 90-80, with 5:30 to go in the game. Things could’ve gotten out of hand for the Jazz; Rodney Hood, who was their only consistent shotmaker on the night, had already gone down with an injury. The crowd was fired up and very much into the ballgame. The Wolves appeared ready to run away with the ballgame.
But that isn’t what happened. Partially through Ricky’s own determination, and partially through the Wolves’ genuine stupidity, the Jazz crawled back into it. Ingles and Rubio hit back to back threes, slicing the lead from 8 to 2. Then, with 1:57 to go and up 5, the Wolves committed a clear path foul as Ricky drove to the basket off a turnover, giving the Jazz two foul shots and the ball. Utah failed to capitalize on the bonus possession, but the Wolves failed to make them pay by bungling the next possession of their own, which resulted in a shot clot violation. Then, Jeff Teague fouled Rubio on a three attempt, Ricky hit all three ensuing free throws, and the game was tied.
But it didn’t stop there – on the next Wolves possession, after a timeout, Jamal Crawford and Karl-Anthony Towns couldn’t execute a basic pick-and-roll, resulting in another Ricky recovery, and two more foul shots. Rubio hit one of two, and the Jazz had the lead 96-95. On Minnesota’s next possession, Jeff Teague threw up an ugly, desperation shot that was blocked, rebounded… and subsequently turned over by Rudy Gobert. Had he held on to it, the Jazz would’ve been shooting free throws to ice the game. But he didn’t, the Wolves called timeout to draw up a play, and then Jamal did his thing:
Down by two, the Jazz call timeout to draw up a play. After scrapping and clawing to keep his dribble, Ricky drove and dished to Gobert, who missed a tough look, but Ricky was there to grab the offensive rebound and kick to Derrick Favors, who missed a great look, and then Rudy Gobert missed the putback attempt, and the ballgame was over.
Jimmy Butler rebounded the Jazz’s third miss of that possession and was fouled by Ricky Rubio. It was a fitting end to their back-and-forth.
It was a rather familiar feeling for those of us who, despite the losing, managed to enjoy Ricky so much over the years. After Kevin Love left, the Wolves were Ricky’s team, for better or worse. Now, they’re Jimmy Butler’s team, for better or worse. When the offseason moves happened, I knew things were going to be very different, but I couldn’t quite articulate how. Obviously, Jimmy is a much, much better player. But it was more than that; with Ricky out of the picture, there was an element gone, replaced by something better. And it took me watching them go toe-to-toe to really figure out what it is…
One’s a facilitator, one’s a catalyst. One’s a middle manager, one’s a skilled tradesman. One’s a bureaucrat, and one’s a badass. Watching Ricky in “winning time” is to hope that others come through on his behalf. Rubio did everything right on that final possession – he kept his dribble despite the double team and pressure, maintained his cool, found an open man in the paint, stayed with the play, collected the board, and found another open man for another shot at the tie. Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors let him down.
When Jimmy passes to a teammate, he’s playmaking. That’s his prerogative, not his priority. Jimmy Butler is a more direct incarnation of what you want, as a Timberwolves fan. He utilizes his teammates, whereas Ricky relies on them. There Jimmy was, banging with Derrick Favors on the low block, getting beat once, but then stripping him on the next possession. There he was, wreaking havoc by forcing a steal and taking it coast to coast. There he was, needling Ricky and firing up the crowd. Sure, on this night, Jamal Crawford was the one who hit the big shot, with Jimmy helping to screen him free. There are nights like that for every elite player.
But as Jimmy settles in, and offensive chemistry picks up, the difference will only become more stark. This is Jimmy’s team, and Jimmy’s time, and if the Wolves fail or succeed, it all comes back to him. On this night, they were lucky to escape with the win. After all that work, all that uphill clawing, Ricky left Target Center with the loss. Jimmy iced the game at the line. And there was nobody else that could let him down.