Ricky Rubio’s homecoming had started with him being introduced as the first member of the Utah Jazz lineup on Friday night. The sellout crowd was not yet settled in Target Center, yet those paying attention gave Rubio a loud ovation.
Asked later about the greeting, Rubio said: “I have a lot of friends here. I haven’t seen them for a while, so it was good.’’
This seemed to put the Minnesota fans in the “friend’’ category, and that would not be a stretch. The difficulty in making jump shots was a frustration for Wolves hard-cores, yet it never changed an overall fondness for Rubio -- as an athlete who came off as devoid of arrogance in his personality, as a tough competitor, as someone determined to make himself part of a winning team in the NBA.
All of those things Minnesotans were able to love in Ricky, if only that stroke of his led to a jump shot that came quicker and with more arc.
Rick Adelman, Flip Saunders and Sam Mitchell all coached Rubio, with various views as to whether his wonderful floor generalship could make up for his flawed shooting.
There was no such quandary for Tom Thibodeau, who became the president for basketball and the coach before the 2016-17 season. There were Rubio trade rumors almost immediately. There were a few weeks last winter when Rubio was making jump shots as never before in the NBA, but that didn’t change the opinion of many that Thibodeau was going to move Ricky if possible.
The Wolves wound up sending him to Utah this summer for a future first-rounder, then used the money saved to sign Jeff Teague, another veteran point guard, as a free agent.
Friday's game was a bit of a brawl from the start, and the Wolves were almost as much of an offensive mess as they had been in losing the season opener on Wednesday in San Antonio.
They were down 65-58 with three minutes to go in the third quarter, and then closed with a 12-0 run to take a 70-65 lead. At that point, Rubio was 3-for-8 from the field, with seven assists, four fouls and a total of eight points.
Bottom line: His impact had been minimal.
Then came the fourth quarter. The game turned fierce, and Rubio had much to do with that from Utah’s standpoint. At one point, Thibodeau's best defender, Jimmy Butler, went at Rubio defensively, and they wound up in a tangle that resulted in a double technical.
Rubio kept being put at the line, including on a couple of foolish fouls by the Wolves. Rubio made a vital three, and eight of nine free throws. He scored 11 points in the fourth to finish with 19.
If Jamal Crawford had not gone lights out in the fourth, scoring all 17 of his points (including a game-winning three from the far right sideline), Rubio and the Jazz would have come into his old home and left with an upset victory.
Utah coach Quin Snyder was asked about Rubio’s furious play in the fourth and said:
“Ricky is kind of stoic, but it’s burning inside if you know him. I like to see the passion in his game. You saw that tonight and I expect to keep seeing it.’’
Rubio was in civilian clothes in the visitors locker room. When the Butler altercation was mentioned, he said:
“It was the NBA. Everybody is trying to get a win. Whatever it takes to get that win … Everybody is trying to make a point.’’
As for the emotion of playing this soon in a new season against his former team, Rubio said: “Once the game starts, you forget about what the emotions were before. You forget and play to win. We didn’t play that well tonight.’’
Rubio also offered this on Crawford bailing out the Wolves in the fourth quarter: “That’s why he has been in the league all this time, playing on winning teams.’’