The white sleeve on Ricky Rubio’s left knee served as a reminder of what he went through to get back on the court.
While it served to protect his surgically repaired joint, it clearly does nothing to constrict the creativity and unbridled joy that made him one of the most exciting players in the league before he went down last season.
Nine long months later, it’s as if Rubio never left.
Zipping passes between his legs to his Timberwolves teammates in a dazzling season debut, Rubio had nine assists and eight points in 18 minutes of Minnesota’s 114-106 overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday night.
Andrei Kirilenko scored five of his 14 points in overtime while Rubio watched from the bench because of a minutes restriction.
”I didn’t feel nothing in the knee,” Rubio said. ”I feel great. … I feel 100 percent. I have some issues in other parts now but it’s just like a normal thing.”
Nikola Pekovic scored 21 points for the Timberwolves, who won their fourth straight game despite playing without All-Star Kevin Love because of an illness.
O.J. Mayo had 20 points, six assists and five rebounds and Shawn Marion had 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Mavericks, who led by 13 early before Rubio came off the bench for the first time since he tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee in March.
”He brings us all energy, man. No words can really describe it,” forward Derrick Williams said. ”You’ve just got to feel it out there on the court.”
Alexey Shved had 18 points and six assists and the Wolves scored the first 10 points in overtime to send an amped crowd home happy.
Derek Fisher scored 20 points for the Mavericks, who turned the ball over 20 times. They led 98-96 after Fisher’s four-point play with 2:50 to go.
Rubio fed Kirilenko for two free throws, then dived on the floor for a loose ball and later knocked down two free throws to tie the game at 100.
But he missed an open 3-pointer with a few seconds remaining that would have won the game in regulation.
No matter. Kirilenko hit two free throws, scored a three-point play and Pekovic finished off the Mavs with a three-point play of his own.
”It’s amazing. They give me a great gift, that `W’ in overtime,” Rubio said. ”I think we’re going to do big things with this team this year. Just showing how we played in the overtime … It was amazing.”
Could it have gone any better?
”Yeah,” he said. ”If I make that shot.”
More than 18,000 packed into Target Center in anticipation of Rubio’s return and erupted at the mere sight of his face on the video board during pregame festivities. He received a standing ovation when he got off the bench to enter the game for the first time with 1:47 to go in the first quarter.
The Wolves were down 28-18 at that point and badly in need of a boost.
With chants of ”Ole! Ole ole ole!” serving as the backdrop, the flash that had been absent for nine months came quickly.
In his fourth minute of game time, Rubio put his back to the basket on the left wing, then bounced a pass between his legs that zipped right past Mavericks forward Elton Brand’s legs as well to an open Greg Stiemsma for a layup that sent the Target Center crowd into a frenzy.
”It’s great. I can’t say with words how it feels,” Rubio said. ”It gives you an extra motivation to play here. I love it. I’m so proud to be playing for this team and in front of this crowd.”
This is what they’ve been waiting for. Sure, they’ve been impressed with how the Wolves have navigated injuries to Rubio, Love, Brandon Roy and four others to win 11 of their first 20 games. But the team was 18th in the league in attendance coming into the night, with many saving their money for Rubio’s return.
They got their money’s worth on Saturday night. Rubio had four points, four assists and a steal in his first eight-minute shift, and the Wolves shifted into overdrive with Rubio’s foot never letting off the gas. Even when he went to the bench, the Wolves closed the period on a 12-3 run.
”He’s a terrific player and he played well,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. ”You couldn’t tell he’s been out for a year. So give him credit.”
The Mavericks can only hope that the return of their star has the same effect. Dirk Nowitzki hasn’t played this season after having surgery on his right knee. There is still no timetable for his return.
NOTES: A bit of a skirmish broke out in the second quarter after Stiemsma leveled Fisher with a screen in the backcourt. Fisher took exception, feeling that Stiemsma put too much oomph into it and had to be held back by teammates. … Williams had 16 points and six rebounds for Minnesota. … Fisher scored 20 in a regular season game for the first time since Dec. 20, 2008 when he scored 27 for the Lakers against Orlando.