Tied by two summertime Timberwolves’ transactions that essentially swapped one for the other, point guards Jeff Teague and Ricky Rubio came to a very real, if fleeting, connection Friday at Utah.
In an instant and in frustration, Teague, on a full run alongside Rubio, body-checked him into the Wolves’ bench, a collision that the officiating crew deemed unnecessary and excessive contact worthy of an automatic ejection with 5:20 left in the Jazz’s 116-108 victory.
Statistically, Teague won the individual matchup for the second consecutive meeting between the teams, but Rubio’s Jazz won Friday after Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns also was ejected just before halftime.
The Wolves dealt Rubio to Utah for a first-round pick in a trade that cleared salary-cap room to give Teague a three-year, $57 million contract last June.
Each team’s coach professes the trade brought the point guard he sought: For Thibodeau, a scoring threat at that position that he deemed his team lacked, particularly with the game on the line. For Utah’s Quin Snyder, a leader and unifier who elevates his team.
As Wolves fans know well, Rubio’s season has been uneven, just like his jump shot. But it was his presence and play that sparked an 11-game winning streak the Jazz rode into the All-Star break.
In October, Snyder said he wants Rubio to be decisive, uninhibited and unafraid to fail. In March, he said Rubio is “tracking” that way for a team that reinserted itself into playoff contention.
“You don’t just come into a new team and a new season and declare yourself a leader,” Snyder said. “You lead over time and people begin to follow you as your voice becomes more dominant and you’re heard more. As that happened with him, it has thrown him into the game and has relaxed him in some other ways. … There’s a level of freedom that comes with not being worried about making a mistake.”
During training camp, Teague noted how more than one Wolves fan already had come up to him and told him how much they’ll miss Rubio. Despite what he says, it’s a meeting he appears to take personally. In the home opener, Rubio outscored Teague 19-10 and had 10 assist to Teague’s five but the Wolves won 100-97. In a November game in Utah, Teague outscored Rubio 22-3 and the Wolves won 109-98. OnFriday, he delivered 25 points and two assists while Rubio had 13 points and seven assists.
Thibodeau repeatedly has praised Teague’s aggressive play recently, particularly now that Jimmy Butler is out injured, and has called him all season one of the league’s best point guards who confounds opposing coaches, including Thibodeau once upon a time, with his ability to break down defenses on the dribble.
“He has been in the paint all year,” Thibodeau said. “If you study his career, this isn’t a new revelation. This is what he has done. It’s one of the things that makes him so good. There’s a reason why he has been in the playoffs every year of his career. I coached against him, I know the problems he created.
‘‘He’s playing with a lot of confidence now and I think he’s healthy again and when he’s healthy, there’s not many guards who have the type of quickness he does.”
There’s only one thing about that: Teague said he still isn’t fully healthy after he sprained a knee ligament in December.
“I’m not, not yet,” he said. “I probably won’t get healthy until the summertime. But everybody’s pretty much banged up now. It’s part of the NBA season.”
He claims he has played the same whether recently or earlier this season, whether with or without Butler.
“I have the ball in my hands a little more, that’s about it,” Teague said. “Just playing, man.”
• Don’t look now, but Portland is one of the teams that closed fast on a Timberwolves team that has been third or fourth in the West these past several weeks. Portland won for 14th time in 19 games with Thursday’s home comeback victory over the Wolves.
The games the Blazers lost earlier in the season, they’re now winning.
• More than one Timberwolf seethed after Karl-Anthony Towns and Jeff Teague both were ejected from Friday’s loss at Utah.
But veteran Taj Gibson sounded a note of empathy for referees.
“It’s always tough,” he said. “With refs, they go through so much. They’ve got the crowd jumping on them. They’ve got the coaches. They’ve got players. At times, they’ll have a short fuse. We’ve got to be a lot smarter because we’re on the road. We’re in a hostile environment. We’re both playing for [playoff] seeding. We don’t need any of our guys thrown out for small things.”
• The Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyus Jones returned Thursday to Portland’s Moda Center, where they played against each other in the 2014 Nike Hoops Summit that four years later would have made a pretty good NBA team.
Jones played for a U.S. team that included future pros Myles Turner, Kelly Oubre, Jahlil Okafor, Stanley Johnson and Justise Winslow. Towns played for a World team that included Nikola Jokic, Clint Capela, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles and Emmanuel Mudiay.
The U.S. won, 84-73.
“There were a lot of pros on both sides of the floor that night,” Jones said. “The good guys won, though.”
• Timberwolves coach/president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau met prominent player agent Dan Fegan near the start of Fegan’s career when he represented fellow Yale alum and New York Knick Chris Dudley in the 1990s while Thibodeau was a Knicks assistant coach.
At one time, Fegan represented the Wolves’ Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and J.J. Barea as well as Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Shawn Marion, DeAndre Jordan and Amar’e Stoudemire, among many others.
Fegan died in a motor-vehicle accident last week in Aspen, Colo. He was 56.
“Really sad, a terrible loss,” Thibodeau said. “He was a tenacious negotiator. A really, really smart guy and always enjoyable to be around. Just sad for his family.”
WOLVES’ WEEK AHEAD
Thursday: 7 p.m. vs. Boston (TNT)
Player to watch: Kyrie Irving, Celtics
It’s a week with a rare five-day break in the schedule and just one opponent, so the Celtics and Irving it is when they come to Target Center for their only visit this season, in what is yet another TNT game. Irving last month played in his fifth and started his third All-Star Game.
“It’s weird to think about … It’s weird, really weird.
Wolves point guard Tyus Jones, who would have celebrated his Senior Night at Duke on Thursday if he hadn’t left college after one season. Teammate Karl-Anthony Towns would have had his at Kentucky on Wednesday.