INDIANAPOLIS – Those free throws missed late in games that seemingly have vexed the Timberwolves so often this season did so no more in Tuesday night’s 115-114 comeback victory at Indiana.
Ricky Rubio’s three free throws with 3.4 seconds left were the difference after the Wolves trailed by nine points with fewer than six minutes left. They matched last season’s 29-victory total with nine games left to play.
Fouled by Pacers point guard Jeff Teague beyond the arc, Rubio made his three consecutive foul shots before time ticked away. Teammate Karl-Anthony Towns made two of his own to get the Wolves within 114-112 with 40 seconds left.
Afterward, Rubio said those three shots are the ones he has rehearsed in gyms and on playgrounds since he was a kid.
“You practice your free throws for moments like that,” Rubio said. “That moment is the one where you work on your game when you’re by yourself in the arena, shooting hundreds of free throws. You want to feel that moment, that pressure and it’s hard to do at the end of the game. But I think we came out big [Tuesday].”
The victory ended the Wolves’ six-game losing streak and sent them home from an odd three-game trip 1-2 after they had lost to the Lakers in Los Angeles and the Trail Blazers in Portland.
Until Tuesday, the Pacers had not lost when they led at home after three quarters. They’re now 23-1 after a 90-87 lead slipped away.
“It’s huge for our confidence, it’s huge for our morale,” Towns said after collecting 37 points and 12 rebounds in what Thibodeau called a “monster” game. “To come out with a win, especially a win like this, is amazing.”
Now an 88.7 percent free-throw shooter this season, Rubio made all 13 foul shots he attempted during a 21-point, 10-rebound game.
On the Wolves’ final possession, he ended up with the ball along the right sideline after the Pacers converged around the ball to force it out of forward Andrew Wiggins’ hands. Rubio said he felt Teague’s hand on his arm.
Teague said his arm must have hit Rubio after Wolves big man Gorgui Dieng collided into him. Pacers superstar Paul George suggested if Rubio had contact with anyone, it was “his own guy.”
Nonetheless, Rubio felt contact and so thrust his arms skyward …
“I tried to shoot it,” Rubio said. “The rest is what they call.”
Rubio stepped up and made all three free throws.
“You know one thing about Ricky,” Towns said. “He’s good for making those big-time shots. He’s a big-time player.”
The Pacers then called timeout and designed a play for George, who had thumped Wiggins in a small-forward matchup pretty much all night until it mattered most. George matched Towns with 37 points, including 25 by halftime.
“Everyone in the building knows they’re going to him,” Thibodeau said. “They have to.”
Wiggins and Rubio helped force the ball out of George’s hands way out top beyond the three-point arc. It ended up with guard Monta Ellis, whose forced 26-foot three at the final buzzer missed as Wiggins ran toward him.
Thibodeau praised his players’ alert play after they denied George the final shot.
“Our awareness was better,” Thibodeau said. “A guy has 25 points [by halftime], your awareness should be better.”
Thibodeau also liked his team’s 19 free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter and 37 in the game. The Wolves made their final 15 attempts. Those last 15 makes followed two missed by Shabazz Muhammad when the Wolves trailed by six points with 8½ minutes left.
“I didn’t thank them,” Muhammad said, “but I should have.”