Already, in only two games, Wolves coach Flip Saunders is hearing it from over on the bench during a game. Ricky Rubio will do something and one of the Wolves youngsters will turn to him and ask, “How did he do that?”
Slowly, steadily, the Timberwolves’ key injured players have trickled back into the lineup. Nikola Pekovic first, followed by Kevin Martin. And now Rubio, who Wednesday played his second game since coming back from a badly sprained left ankle, his first game back at Target Center.
The result: A 102-101 victory over a Miami team playing without injured star Dwyane Wade. A come-from-behind victory for the Wolves, down 10 points in the fourth quarter. The kind of victory that seemed almost impossible when Saunders was patching together makeshift lineups through November, December and January.
Welcome back, Mr. Rubio.
“He made a difference early, a difference late,” Saunders said. “With him on the floor, we probably shot around 60 percent and our defense is better.”
There is no question that Rubio, who had eight points, nine assists, three rebounds and two steals in 23-plus minutes, was a catalyst for a Wolves offense that shot 51.4 percent. With his dribble penetration, his no-look passes (one, on a bounce, that led to an Anthony Bennett dunk that brought the crowd to its feet — how’d he do that?) and just his presence. You could feel the difference.
“Having a guy like that back in our lineup, you can’t put it into words,” said Martin, who scored a game-high 30 points.
“He’s a professional passer,” said Thaddeus Young, who had 16 points and some inspired fourth-quarter play.
But this wasn’t all Rubio.
The Wolves (9-40) got contributions from Martin and Young, 10 points and 10 assists from Mo Williams and 13 points and nine rebounds from Gorgui Dieng.
Of course they needed all of that. Heat center Hassan Whiteside had 24 points (on 12-for-13 shooting) and 20 rebounds while leading a Heat attack that beat the Wolves to the punch for most of the first three-plus quarters. Luol Deng had 18 points, Norris Cole had 15 and Chris Bosh 14.
But in the fourth, this comeback was a team effort.
Down 10 with 9 minutes, 47 seconds left after Cole hit a three-pointer, the Wolves got four points from Dieng and Williams’ three-pointer while pulling to within one on two Anthony Wiggins free throws with 6:17 left with Rubio on the bench.
That’s when he checked back in. And that’s when the fun really started.
The fourth quarter was a complete change. Beat up on the boards much of the game, the Wolves won that battle in the final 12 minutes, outrebounding the Heat, holding Miami to 35.3 percent shooting, forcing five turnovers and holding Whiteside to two points.
But Cole hit a three-pointer, then Deng a layup. After a Wolves turnover, Bosh hit a 19-footer with 57.4 seconds left to give Miami its final lead at 101-100. But Miami didn’t score again. Martin scored with 41 seconds left. In the closing seconds, Chalmers missed a runner, and Cole a three-pointer at the buzzer.
The Wolves have their health, and they have their point guard.
“I felt good,” Rubio said. “And happy to be back there and playing basketball again. I missed it so much. I want to do everything all at the same time. I have to take it easy. The ankle is not 100 percent yet. Getting back in rhythm takes time.”
And it will take time for his teammates to learn to play with him again.
“We feel good with the development of the young guys,” Martin said. “We know what we have with our vets. We feel we’re capable of doing this every night.”