DENVER – Unseen as a pairing throughout the preseason, Timberwolves guards Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine united for a brief but vital four-plus minute stretch during the fourth quarter of Wednesday night’s stirring, emotional comeback 112-111 road victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Did sly interim coach Sam Mitchell keep a secret in his pocket, stored away just for the 2015-16 season’s opening night? Mitchell laughed at the question, like a man who doesn’t consider himself that cunning.
“When the game starts, all that game-planning, all that stuff you write down in your room goes out the window,” Mitchell said. “During the game, you look out there and just do the best you can do.”
Mitchell played the two together mostly out of circumstance: LaVine had just given his team seven productive defensive minutes that ended the third quarter and started the fourth, which just happened to be the same time the Wolves narrowed a 15-point deficit and got themselves back in the game.
So when it was time to give Kevin Martin a much-needed rest, Mitchell chose to bring back Rubio with nine minutes left and keep LaVine on the floor with him. At that point, Rubio was well on his way to a career-high 28 points and 14 assists.
Down 97-91 at the time, the Wolves led by a point when Martin came back in for LaVine with fewer than five minutes to play. They led by nine with 2:13 to go thanks to a 9-1 run after Martin re-entered, then held on dearly at the end when the Lakers answered with a 9-1 run of their own.
Rubio and LaVine were supposed to be backcourt mates when Mitchell declared LaVine his starting shooting guard to start preseason play. That experiment lasted a matter of days before Mitchell began playing LaVine at backup point guard again.
“I couldn’t take Zach out because he helped us get back in the game,” Mitchell said, “and Ricky was probably the best player in the first half.”
Rubio said he liked what he saw in that brief time Wednesday. “We didn’t see it until tonight,” he said. “I think I can really help him playing the ‘2’ [shooting guard] getting him in the open court, and he can help me handling the ball and with a lot of things. I think that’s a good backcourt. I hope we can see more in the future.”
Second-year star Andrew Wiggins went 2-for-10 in 29 minutes Wednesday and had a treatment pack strapped to his upper back often when he wasn’t in the game. Afterward, Mitchell said Wiggins had a stiff neck and back the previous three days but played through it.
Wiggins is listed as probable for Friday’s game at Denver because of upper back spasms.
First time for full court
Martin scored 23 points Wednesday, but Rubio praised his defense for being the difference in the Wolves’ comeback from 16 down. Mitchell sent Martin to defend Lakers rookie D’Angelo Russell late in the third quarter and Martin decided to defend him full court, a decision that inspired his teammates and changed the game.
“I think Kevin Martin, for the first time I saw him guarding full court,” Rubio said. “So it was good. That rally started everything. Our defense was the key to win this game.”
Said Martin: “I don’t think I’ve picked up full court since elementary [school], but it was fun.”
• Rubio’s 28-point, 14-assist game was only the second such performance in Wolves history. Pooh Richardson had a 30-14 game against Orlando in January 1991.
• The Wolves’ rookie record for double-doubles in a season is Kevin Love’s 29 in 2008-09. No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns is 1-for-1 after getting 14 points and 12 rebounds vs. the Lakers.
• After four days of sorrow following Sunday’s death of coach Flip Saunders, Martin said of Wednesday’s comeback: “That was one of the sweetest wins I’ve ever been a part of.”