Timberwolves veteran forward Josh Howard first met new teammate Ricky Rubio nearly three weeks ago, but he didn't receive a real introduction until Rubio returned to practice Sunday for the first time since tearing knee ligaments in a game last March.
"He threw a bounce pass between my legs," Howard said, "so I know he's still got it."
Howard defended Rubio for a good part of Sunday's shortened 90-minute practice because Rubio wanted to be tested by a long, physical opponent his first time out since his Vail, Colo., surgeon cleared him on Wednesday for contact practices.
"After long time, I'm on the court again," he said. "Pretty good."
Rubio waited nearly nine months for this moment, ever since he planted his left foot while trying to impede Kobe Bryant's path in a March 9 game against the Los Angeles Lakers, ever since he underwent knee surgery two weeks later to repair torn anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments.
"I don't know," Rubio said when asked if his body was where he expected it'd be after a long rehabilitation road back. "I mean, I feel pretty good. I want to be perfect. I wasn't imagining coming back and everything being perfect. It's not. I have to keep working and see where I'm at."
Rubio's court vision and instincts never left him.
Howard can attest to that.
"For the most part, I don't take too well to people doing that," Howard said about that pass threaded through his legs. "I consider myself a defender."
Rubio's conditioning and stamina still are somewhere yet to be found.
Wolves coach Rick Adelman can attest to that.
"He did all his stuff," Adelman said, referring to Rubio's between-the-legs pass and other fancy playmaking skills. "He showed that today. That's always going to be there. It's going to be his conditioning and his legs and how long he can go. He knows all the plays. He got to his spots and made his typical passes.
"It's going to be how long can he do it and for how many minutes can he do it and how's he going to respond tomorrow."
Rubio said Sunday he does not yet know how much practice he will need before he will be ready to play his game.
"I feel weird for a while," he said about Sunday's practice. "Until I'm great and don't think about my knee, I'm not going to play. But actually, I'm happy about today ... I try not to think about it, but sometimes when you do a hard cut, you realize you've been out for a long time. Your knee has some issues from the surgery again, but I feel pretty good."
Some parts of him feel better than others, of course.
"Oh, my lungs feel good, my legs feel tired," Rubio said. "I felt like I ran a 10K or something like that. I have to rest now, but I feel good and ready for tomorrow."
He said his lateral movement isn't what he wants it to be just yet.
"Still slow, but I'm working on that," Rubio said. "I've been working, but it's not the same working off the court and working with teammates being on the court. You can run, you can be in shape, but once you hit the court, it's just different."
Howard knows exactly what Rubio is going through. He tore his ACL during a game with Washington in February 2010.
He said it took him "almost a year and a half" to return to the player he was before the injury.
"But mine was different and I was a little older," Howard said. "First time I had a major injury like that."
Rubio, too, is finding his way through the first major injury of his career. The next step forward was Sunday's practice, when he discovered that his vision and flair haven't left him with that pass threaded through Howard's legs just like he did to Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki in his fourth career NBA game last season.
"Yeah, I did it," Rubio said with a smile. "It was fun."