Traded away last summer mostly because he couldn’t shoot straight, Utah’s Ricky Rubio nearly beat his former team one free throw at a time Friday night until Timberwolves veteran Jamal Crawford did what he has done in so many fourth quarters these past 18 years.
Crawford scored all of his 17 points in that fourth quarter, including the clutch three-pointer that put the Wolves ahead to stay with 27 seconds remaining in a 100-97 home-opening victory at Target Center.
Rubio carried the Jazz to the brink of victory one shot at a time on a 19-point, 10-assist night during which he shot 11 free throws and made 10 of them.
But it was Crawford who repelled Utah repeatedly, particularly when it mattered most.
With his team trailing for the first time since late in the third quarter 96-95 with fewer than 30 seconds left, Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau scribbled up from the recesses of his brain an improvised play that provided three options, the first of which point guard Jeff Teague used without hesitation.
“It didn’t matter, to be honest with you,” Teague said when asked what the second and third options were. “I was going to Jamal the whole way. I’ve seen him make those shots 100 times. That’s Jamal; he makes the impossible look easy. I knew when I was taking the ball out. I was going to him. That’s his moment, the time he really shines.”
So after a timeout, Teague inbounded the ball from the baseline. Karl-Anthony Towns set the screen that allowed Crawford to slip free by the scantest of margins along the right sideline. He caught the pass and shot almost instantly, even though he made an admission after the game.
“To be very honest with you, I couldn’t see the basket,” Crawford said. “But I’ve shot that shot so many times, I knew. I just look at the net.”
The net went swish and the Wolves held on, dangling dangerously in the breeze after Andrew Wiggins was called for an inexplicable dead-ball foul with his team leading by four points with five seconds left. After a made free throw and getting to inbound the ball on the sideline, the Jazz finally came up short as Joe Johnson’s desperation three-point try missed everything as time expired.
Afterward, Thibodeau shook his head and rolled his eyes when talking about both Rubio’s 11 free throws and Wiggins’ foul. “It’s mindboggling, to be honest with you. And I’m not talking about Wig.”
Crawford credited Thibodeau for drawing up the winning play.
“That’s what so great about the play: Thibs just drew it up,” Crawford said. “It’s amazing because we haven’t worked on that particular play, but he had it in the back of his head. Unbelievable that I could be open and a couple other guys could be open, but Teague trusted me with the shot.”
Afterward, Thibodeau compared the 37-year-old Crawford to Vince Carter, two guys who keep on keeping on while other much younger retire.
“It says a lot about them,” Thibodeau said. “At that age, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I think their love of the game and he’s got the body type: He’s not heavy, he’s light. To his credit, I think he plays year-round, so he’s always in great shape.”
When he was a rookie, Teague played with Crawford in Atlanta. Eight years later, nothing’s changed, other than maybe Crawford’s age.
“I’m not amazed by him anymore,” Teague said. “I expect that from him.”