Timberwolves’ Rubio makes long-awaited return in loss to Mavs

With the Timberwolves in town, Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea hosted a cohort of his former teammates for the Super Bowl on Sunday at his Dallas-area home.

He and one of his guests, Ricky Rubio, struck up a friendly wager — or "apuesta," as both the Puerto Rican and the Spaniard would say in their native Spanish tongue. Barea put his money on the Patriots, while Rubio took the Seahawks.

"It didn’t go well," Rubio said with a smile. "I don’t know why (the Seahawks) didn’t go for Marshawn Lynch (on Seattle’s final offensive play). But it was a fun game to watch."

This was a genial bet between friends (Barea spent three years backing up Rubio in Minnesota before reaching a buyout with Minnesota and signing back with the Mavs before the start of the season). But since early November, Rubio had been submerged by helplessness of the most serious kind, watching in anguish as the Wolves stumble toward the top of the NBA Draft Lottery odds chart.

A day after Super Sunday, at long last, things were back under Rubio’s control.

The highlight-prone point guard made his long-awaited return from a severely-sprained left ankle, tallying 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting and four assists in 21 minutes, 22 seconds during Minnesota’s 100-94 loss at the American Airlines Center. It was Rubio’s first game action since Nov. 7, when he drove hard to the rim against Orlando’s Willie Green and landed on the side of his ankle in the Wolves’ fifth game of the season.

Rubio missed 42 contests — eight fewer than he did when an ACL tear in the same leg cost him part of the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons, his first two in the league.

Mavericks 100, Timberwolves 94

"Trust me," Rubio said, according to SB Nation’s Tim Cato, "I was dying inside that I wasn’t able to play and help (my teammates)."

Saunders said this past weekend three different specialists had cleared Rubio to play Monday. He started but was capped at the 20-minute threshold, which meant backup Mo Williams — who returned from a three-game absence due to hip soreness — played the final minutes as the Wolves (8-40) almost came back from a 21-point deficit.

That was largely due to Rubio, who attacked early, accounting for Minnesota’s first eight points, and threw several of the nifty passes that have made him so popular. The most pronounced was a transition alley-oop to rookie Andrew Wiggins that made it 91-85 Dallas with 6:04 remaining.

The Wolves got within 96-94 at the 1:52 mark but didn’t score again. Starting in place of injured Rajon Rondo (orbital fracture in left eye and broken nose), Barea scored Dallas’ final four points, and Minnesota missed three shots on one possession that could’ve brought it within a score of the lead with less than 30 seconds to go.

Monta Ellis led the Mavericks (33-17) with 23 points, while shooting guard Kevin Martin had 23 for Minnesota.

"It was tough" to take Rubio out late, Saunders said. "You could see he was favoring it a little bit at the end. He was limping a little bit when he was running, so we can’t take any chances on that."

Rubio had been practicing for about two weeks and watching games from behind the Wolves bench, often getting in teammates’ ears during timeouts and hopping out onto the floor with enthusiasm when one of them made a play.

Between rehabilitation sessions, he worked on his oft-criticized jump shot with shooting coach Mike Penberthy. It looked good Monday night, as Rubio seemed to have the necessary lift he tends to neglect on jumpers.

"His shot has almost been remade," Saunders said. "We might look back in a year and say maybe the best thing that ever happened was having those three months off where he was able to really break down his shot and work on his shot and become a consistent shooter."

With the sprain keeping him out well past his self-appointed target return date of Christmas, reporters and fans in the Twin Cities began to question Rubio’s mettle and dedication to returning. But Saunders recently revealed the sprain came with a bone bruise and some tissue damage that kept Rubio out almost 10 weeks.

His was the first of a string of injuries that completely derailed a season that was already developmental in nature when Wiggins replaced Kevin Love as the franchise’s centerpiece. Monday marked the first time since Rubio went down that he, Martin and center Nikola Pekovic started a game together.

And so begins the next stage of the Wolves’ full-on rebuilding process. Shortly before his injury, Rubio inked a four-year, $56 million extension. It’s his job to facilitate a high-octane offense featuring Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad and the rest of Minnesota’s promising youth and providing some much-needed perimeter defense, all while nurturing the young guys’ development.

With the league’s worst record, the Wolves will have opportunities to further build around Rubio and Wiggins.

As long as the former can stay healthy.

"He’s a guy that makes the team better instantly by his passing ability, other than that his shooting ability, his tenacity to guard the basketball," power forward Thaddeus Young said.

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