DALLAS – In some respects, nothing changed Monday night with the Timberwolves’ 100-94 loss at Dallas, the eighth defeat in their past nine games.
In other ways, everything changed.
Ricky Rubio is back.
Their star point guard to whom the Wolves guaranteed $55 million last fall, Rubio played — and started — his first game after nearly three months and 42 games away because of a severely sprained ankle in which muscles tore and bone was bruised when it bent in ways never intended during a Nov. 7 game at Orlando.
Trailing 10-0 at game’s start and by 21 points in Monday’s second quarter, the Wolves nonetheless felt their point guard’s presence because of his court sense and defensive disruptiveness. He led them back into contention late in the game. Then, because he already had surpassed his 20-minute playing limit, Rubio watched the final four minutes in which his teammates pulled within a bucket, but no closer.
“It felt pretty good,” Rubio said of his return. “I feel in shape. I feel great.”
He played 21 minutes, went 4-for-9 from the field, scored 10 points and had four assists, three rebounds and three turnovers. He demonstrated confidence in a jump shot he worked hard on while he was away, found cutting Thaddeus Young with a couple of nifty bounce passes and connected with rookie Andrew Wiggins on an alley-oop pass that the No. 1 overall draft pick converted into a soaring slam dunk.
“Ricky on the court is instant impact: His court vision, his intelligence,” Wiggins said. “I think he played great for his first time back. He looked great. He defended great. He ran the team like he has been here.”
Such is life once again with Rubio, whose return sets in motion what coach Flip Saunders calls a “work in progress” now that his team, in just the past week, has integrated Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin back into the lineup.
“The more we play, the more we’ll start to get a better feel together for each other,” Saunders said. “It’s just a matter of playing together. That’s the biggest thing.”
Rubio calls himself a changed person since he last played in November, and just maybe a changed player as well.
He missed nearly nine months because of a torn knee ligament suffered late in his rookie season nearly three years ago now.
But he said Monday that he considers this recent three-month absence different, perhaps because he’s now 24 or maybe because he has a different sense of ownership after he signed that hefty four-year contract extension exactly a week before he injured his ankle.
“I know being hurt is tough,” Rubio said. “You think about all the negative side, but there are a lot of good things that can happen. I grew up as a person. I grew up as a teammate and as a coach, too. I know my teammates better now. I see the problems they have from the outside, and I’m more ready to play with my teammates now.
“It was more beneficial this time. I have more confidence in me. I have the power, the poise to tell my teammates what to do. I give them some advice — especially the young guys — and I think they will listen to me.”
He said felt in control as Monday’s game progressed, only to have to sit with it all on the line.
“I was dying, it’s something super painful,” he said. “I was thinking already of the couple next plays and I had to sit down. It’s something the doctor has to say and you can’t fight against that.”
It also pained Saunders, who said he could see Rubio favoring his left leg near game’s end.
“Pretty tough,” Saunders said. “He probably played two minutes more than he was supposed to. He really wanted to stay in, but it’s bigger than that.
‘‘He was limping a bit when he was running, so we can’t take any chance on that.”