With so much at stake for a franchise that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2004, the Timberwolves resoundingly lost 121-97 to Utah and an old friend Sunday night at Target Center.
Traded last summer in part because he didn’t shoot well enough to pressure opposing defenses, former Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio made five three-poiners — including his first four — and scored 23 points for a Jazz team that moved ahead of the Wolves in a Western Conference playoff race that changes by hour.
Now 25-5 in its past 30 games, the Jazz has reclaimed its season and is sixth in the West after beating the Wolves, who in one evening slid from fifth to seventh place after both Utah and Oklahoma City won. The Wolves are a half-game ahead of the Clippers for the final playoff spot and 1 1/2 games ahead of Denver Nuggets, who the Wolves play twice in their final four games of the regular season.
The Wolves’ performance lacked what coach Tom Thibodeau termed “execution” and “intensity” on such an important occasion that required both.
“We always talk about those two things,” Thibodeau said. “What we did tonight wasn’t good enough, not even close.”
Trailing 9-2 and 17-11 early, the Jazz eventually outdid the Wolves in too many categories after they led by as many as 29 points in the fourth quarter: rebounding 44-33, assists 29-19, bench scoring 50-26, second-chance points 16-11, fast-break points 11-4, blocked shots 7-1 and both three-pointers made 11-8 and free throws made 18-13. Oh, and Utah also shot 60 percent and scored 127 points while the formerly high-octane Wolves offense failed to reach 100 points for the third time in four games.
“That’s a telltale sign we’re giving them everything,” Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns said, referring to Utah’s shooting percentage.
Asked what gave his team the most problems in such a big game with only four games left to play, Thibodeau said, “Just about everything.”
Nothing gave the Wolves more problems, though, than Rubio’s shooting and scoring.
Called a game-time decision whether he’d even play or not, Rubio indeed did play in his second time back to Target Center since Thibodeau traded him last June for salary-cap space and Oklahoma City’s first-round pick this summer.
Rubio missed Friday’s home victory over Memphis because of a sore hamstring, but he wasn’t missing this one, not with playoff spots and positioning so much in doubt.
Thibodeau essentially swapped Rubio for free agent Jeff Teague last summer in part because of Teague’s durability. The twist Sunday with the lights burning so brightly: Teague didn’t play because of a sore knee — Tyus Jones started instead, and Aaron Brooks backed him up.
“I was feeling it, but I said, ‘No chance I’m not playing tonight,’ ” Rubio said. “I know it’s a huge game. I was being smart. I know that the team needs me, but this game was huge.”
Rubio called Sunday’s second time back at Target Center “emotional” still because of all those seasons he called it home.
“I spend six years over here,” he said. “There are a lot of memories — good memories — and it feels good to play like that.”
When asked if there’s extra satisfaction beating his former teammates, Rubio said: “Of course. Everybody has their old team and they want to play good there and it feels good to play like that.”
The Jazz changed the game with a 13-2 run mostly by its second unit that turned a score tied at 28 into a double-digit lead from which the Wolves never recovered. The Wolves were threatening to draw close by halftime when Jones stole the ball but missed a dunk attempt over Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz scored the first half’s final five points, punctuated by Rubio’s fourth three just before halftime.
“I’ve seen Ricky hit shots, I’ve seen Ricky make tremendous passes,” Jones said. “I played with him for two years so that’s a lot of games. I’ve seen him do a number of things, but he’s the same Ricky.”