This was a tremendous winter for the Timberwolves to come back as a relevant member of the NBA. The lockout was settled in time to salvage a Christmas Day start and to put together a compact 66-game schedule.

Even with the physical burden placed on the athletes, the NBA was able to regain quickly the excitement level that carried through the playoffs and concluded with the Dallas Mavericks' upset of the Miami Heat.

We hardly noticed here in Minnesota how good the NBA had gotten again, what with the Timberwolves' seven-year descent to oblivion -- from the Western Conference finals in 2004 to a combined 32-102 record over the prior two seasons.

David Kahn, the president of basketball, made good on his promise to get Ricky Rubio signed, and the Wolves hired future Hall of Famer Rick Adelman as coach, and Kevin Love showed up looking like he was ready to fight Russell Crowe in "Gladiator,'' and the NBA was back in Minnesota.

On Friday night, the Lakers were at Target Center, and this was truly a sellout, with fans stacked to the top in every corner of the arena.

A few minutes before tipoff, it became known Love would miss the game because of back spasms. And yet the Wolves, with Nikola Pekovic and rookie Derrick Williams waging a noble battle against all that Lakers size, and with lean Luke Ridnour and Martell Webster taking shifts against Kobe Bryant, the home team was able to keep the customers enthralled all night.

Then, with 16.4 seconds left and the Wolves leading 102-101, Rubio arrived to join a double-team on Bryant. It appeared as if Rubio's left knee started to buckle before the actual collision. The call went to Kobe, of course, and he went to the line to put the Lakers ahead, as Rubio was being helped off the court.

Torn anterior cruciate ligament. Rubio figures to be seen next in a game at Target Center around Christmastime, maybe later.

The torn ACL is suddenly an epidemic with prominent Twin Cities athletes. Adrian Peterson suffered a torn ACL on Dec. 24, but that was at the end of a lost Vikings season. Trevor Mbakwe, the Gophers' best player, did the same on Nov. 27 -- a sad event for the fifth-year senior, but before a Big Ten season that provided basketball that bordered on the unwatchable, from top to bottom.

Today's NBA product displays such a superior level of brawn, brains and skills over the college game that it's become the difference between basketball suited for 3D television and basketball that would be right at home with peach baskets.

It was into this modern, exceptional NBA that the Wolves finally had entered for a run of 41 games (and 21 wins) in 15 weeks. In that brief time, they had gone from the orphans of the Twin Cities sports market to the most compelling attraction by far -- with Love, and Pekovic, and the on-the-rise Williams and, especially, with Rubio.

What Rubio had done to create interest and change the demographic for the Timberwolves in four months was remindful of what Kirby Puckett did for the Twins a quarter-century earlier.

The Twins were a dead franchise perhaps on the way to St. Petersburg, Fla., when Puckett arrived at the ballpark in Anaheim, Calif., on May 8, 1984.

A year later, there was a summer day when the Metrodome's upper deck was filled with tee-ballers and Little Leaguers. A roving reporter ventured there to ask: "Who is your favorite Twins player?"

Fifty of those kids were asked, and 50 gave this answer: "Kirby."

On Friday, the sellout crowd included moms, dads and an amazing number of kids. And simply from conversation in the corridors, if a sampling of these youngsters had been asked to name a favorite player, the overwhelming answer would've been: "Ricky.''

A great coach in Adelman and a great player in Love might be able to maintain some stability, but Rubio was the energizer of the fans. The reason the kids bugged Mom and Dad to go to Target Center was to see "Ricky."

This is a body blow to a franchise that finally had regained its footing after seven years of stumbling and blundering.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM.