In his third game back after nearly three months away, Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio gave the crowd both a scare and reason to scream during Friday night’s 90-89 comeback victory over a muscular Memphis Grizzlies team that hadn’t lost in 18 days.
Just minutes after he ran off the Target Center court and through the tunnel while his team’s heart skipped a collective beat, Rubio scored the game’s final five points over the final 34.8 seconds. By doing so, the Wolves won consecutive games by one point, a franchise first.
“Is that called a winning streak?” Wolves coach Flip Saunders said afterward.
Technically it is, although not one the Grizzlies — who saw their eight-game winning streak end — might recognize.
The Wolves now have beaten Miami and Memphis consecutively in three nights by making a defensive stand that won each game at the final buzzer. To get there Friday, the Wolves needed Rubio — their pass-first point guard — to score eight points over the final 1 minute, 47 seconds and 10 points in the fourth quarter alone.
Until Monday’s loss at Dallas, Rubio hadn’t played since he tore a muscle and bruised a bone when he severely sprained his left ankle Nov. 7 in Orlando.
“Moments like that, all the hard work I’ve been doing on my rehab, it’s so worth it,” Rubio said. “By playing, it’s all I’m asking. Get healthy and I work hard. I work for these kind of moments. This is why I love basketball, for moments in games like that.”
He left the court midway through the fourth quarter, after he made a layup and came down wrong on that ankle, falling underneath the basket. Once upright, he ran limping the length of the court and then jogged out of the arena bowl while an announced crowd of 14,388 fans lost its breath.
“It pitter-pattered, as you could imagine,” Saunders said, referring to his heart. “Just as everyone else’s in the arena did.”
Rubio, though, said he was not worried that he had reinjured his ankle. He said it went numb after he landed and added he just needed to keep running on it through the arena corridors until he was ready to return.
“It happened to me before,” Rubio said playfully about the numbness, “because I’m not so athletic and I tried to dunk it and didn’t have the power. It was nothing bad because I put all my weight on my ankle. It was good because I was running. It didn’t feel like Orlando where I couldn’t put my foot on the floor.”
Rubio came back into the game 77 seconds later, returning to cheers with the Wolves trailing 79-75 with 4:41 left on a night when Nikola Pekovic’s fourth-quarter scoring kept his team close until Rubio returned to win the game with his offense and rookie Andrew Wiggins did it with his defense.
“It wasn’t Willis Reed-like now,” Saunders said of Rubio’s return, referring to the former New York Knicks star who limped out of the Madison Square Garden tunnel on an injured leg before the 1970 NBA Finals’ Game 7 and by doing so provided the emotion that led his team to a title.
Still, Wiggins said, “It shows heart. We need him.”
The Wolves twice again trailed by six points, including 89-83 with 1:24 left. But Courtney Lee’s two free throws then were the last points Memphis scored. The Wolves scored the final seven points, including Rubio’s three-pointer with 34.8 seconds left to pull them within 89-88, followed by his tying and go-ahead free throws with 10.2 seconds left after he stole the ball from Zach Randolph and was fouled.
The Wolves then saved the victory when Rubio stole a Mike Conley pass with 5.9 seconds in a finish that caused the home crowd to clamor as much as they fell silent when Rubio disappeared minutes before.
Afterward, Rubio was told he gave fans quite a scare.
“I think I gave them a good reason not to worry,” he said, “to be happy.”