For nine months fans had been waiting for this:
Ricky Rubio, the no-look, between-the-legs pass to Greg Stiemsma. Rubio, the steal and feed for a trey by J.J. Barea. Rubio, his hand firmly fixed to the Timberwolves' on switch, Target Center wired. Rubio, the game on the line, the ball in his hands.
Nine months after tearing two ligaments in his left knee, after surgery to repair them, after countless rehab sessions, Rubio returned. It could have been astounding, had Rubio's three-pointer fallen with the score tied and the clock winding down in the fourth quarter.
Instead, all 18,173 fans will take the wonderful: A 114-106 overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks, earned with Kevin Love out because of flu-like symptoms. The Wolves scored the first 10 points of overtime, with Andrei Kirilenko scoring five of them, as the Wolves produced their first four-game winning streak since February 2010. It put the Wolves (12-9) three games over .500 for the first time since Jan. 13, 2007.
And it might be no exaggeration to say that the energy that drove this victory came from Rubio
"I can't say with words how it felt," Rubio said of the ovation he received upon entering the game in the first quarter. "It gives you an extra motivation to play here. I'm so proud to be playing for this team, in front of this crowd."
Rubio came off the bench, which is something fans will have to get used to for a while as the team eases him back. He played 18 minutes, which was part of the pre-ordained plan. But even in relatively small doses, it was intoxicating.
In seven first-half minutes he had four points, four assists and a steal, entering with the lethargic Wolves down 10 points, returning to the bench with the Wolves within two -- a roll that continued even with Rubio on the bench.
In the second half, on consecutive Wolves hoops, Rubio fed Kirilenko for a dunk, dished Nikola Pekovic with a behind-the-back pass and Luke Ridnour with a no-look dish.
He returned to the game with a little more than 3 minutes left and almost won it in regulation. He tied the score with two free throws with 1:41 left. He fed Pekovic for a hoop that tied it again with 59 seconds left. And then Rubio watched his team finish the job.
"Amazing," Rubio said. "They give me a great gift, that 'W' in overtime."
Could it have gone better? Yes, he said, had he made that three-pointer at the end. Will he forget this? No, he said.
"I love this team, I love playing basketball, and I'm never going to forget how to play."
Talk about drama. The Wolves' 10-point lead disappeared in the fourth quarter, then they opened overtime with 10 consecutive points.
Six Wolves scored in double figures, led by Pekovic's 21 points. Alexey Shved had 18, and Derrick Williams scored 16 off the bench.
But this was Rubio's night. He was the man the fans were there to see. It was his energy that kick-started the Wolves. It was his amazing night that gave promise of significant promise going forward.
"He was pretty excited," deadpanned Wolves coach Rick Adelman. "When he has the ball in his hands, I'm a better coach."
And the Wolves are a better team. Saturday night was not the start, but a step in the process. Rubio will be brought back slowly, even sitting on the second half of back-to-backs at the start. Still, the emotion Saturday was real, infectious, as thick inside Target Center as the misty fog was outside.
Afterward Kirilenko talked with amazement of the eyes in the back of Rubio's head. Barea, sitting a few feet away, smiled.
"It is awesome having Ricky back," he said. "He is a player. He lives for basketball, you know? People like that, they'll do anything to play. He worked for this, and look how things turned out tonight."
WOLVES 114, DALLAS 106 (OT)
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