Minnesota Timberwolves fans (and basketball analysts) had been waiting all season for this.
Not for the return of Ricky Rubio (that came on Saturday during Minnesota's 114-106 win over Dallas), but for the first game for Rubio and Kevin Love. Love missed Saturday's contest with flu-like symptoms.
The outcome wasn't what Minnesota wanted (Orlando won, 102-93), but there were flashes to whet those anticipatory appetites.
Of course, everyone knew heading into the game that they would only be given flashes. In just his second game back since tearing his ACL and MCL on March 9, 2012, Rubio was given an 18-minute limit (according to Ray Richardson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press).
A bit of rust was anticipated. But so were some highlights.
So, how did they fare?
A quick glance at the box score suggests Rubio was borderline atrocious: zero points (0-of-3 from the field), four assists and three turnovers in 16.5 minutes.
But his impact couldn't be seen by just his stats. His insertion in the lineup (which came at the 4:26 mark of the first quarter) injected life into the Timberwolves offense.
It wasn't long after that his passing skills added to his growing highlight reel:
Rubio is in a class with J-Kidd and Magic Johnson with his passing skills.— Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) December 18, 2012
And he didn't spare on the flair.
With under two minutes left in the first quarter, Rubio broke to the right wing, then curled a pass across his body, splitting defenders Jameer Nelson and Nikola Vucevic and finding an open Love under the basket.
With six seconds left in the half, Rubio raced the ball upcourt and found a trailing Kevin Love at the top of the key to send the Timberwolves into halftime with a 61-49 advantage. Later, he left a pass between his legs for another Love three, although that shot was off the mark.
His numbers were a bit skewed given the assists that his teammates left on the table. Without prolonged practice time, his passes didn't always find ready recipients:
Ricky Rubio is amazing. Minny's recent acquisitions need to get used to playing with him though. They're not ready for his perfect passes.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) December 18, 2012
But his offensive impact was limited by that light workload. There will be time for some seasoning with this roster, and all parties look like they could use it.
During his rookie season, Rubio impressed with his pick-pocketing prowess.
He tallied 2.2 steals per game in 2011-12, and he's added five more in the first two games of 2012-13 (with two coming against Orlando).
But his thievery helped mask some of his one-on-one defensive deficiencies.
Against Orlando, those deficiencies surfaced.
The Magic ran a series of screeners his way, and the 6'4", 180-pound Rubio struggled to fight through them. With a trailing Rubio behind them, his matchups penetrated Minnesota's defense and finished at the rim or found open teammates.
Save for J.J. Redick (18 points on 8-of-12 shooting), the Orlando backcourt had a relatively quiet night. But that came more from their inability to make open shots than it did from any defensive effort from Rubio or his backcourt mates.
Love entered the game having scored just 22 points on 7-of-35 shooting in his previous two games.
Through the night's early goings, he appeared well on his way to another forgettable performance:
Maybe Love is playing like this so Kahn get's tempted to move him?— Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) December 18, 2012
But Love seemed energized when Rubio hit the floor. His point guard called his number early and often, and Love answered the calls with a series of hook shots and points in the paint.
By the time the first half ended, he looked more like he was on his way to a monster effort (17 points, on 7-of-11 shooting).
But that offensive energy failed to carry over to the second half. Orlando's defense closed in on Love, particularly near the basket. With his teammates failing to capitalize from the perimeter (Minnesota shot just 7-of-25 from three for the game), Love wound up forcing shots in double and triple coverages.
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, a distressed Love attempted just two shots in eight minutes in the period.
His final stat line was impressive: 23 points and 15 rebounds in 38 minutes. But Love's offensive night was really a story of two halves.
Love isn't one of the most desired commodities in the NBA for his defense.
But even by his own standards, this game was a disappointment.
He was bullied around the basket by Glen Davis (28 points on 13-of-17 shooting). Davis threw his 6'9", 289-pound body into the 260-pound Love and forced his way into dominant post position. He outraced Love down the floor to find easy buckets and slipped behind a sleeping Love on a couple of occasions for point-blank looks.
Love was giving ground for most of the game. When he wasn't, his rotations were slow to cut off the relentless Orlando drives. He overcommitted on help at times and left his man open near the basket; other times he left Magic shooters with too much space from the mid-range.
His play on that end wasn't a complete loss, though, as the prolific glass-eater corralled a game-high 13 defensive rebounds. His understanding of shot trajectory and battles for early position allowed him to be in the right place for rebounds all night.
The play of Love and Rubio needs some clarifications.
For starters, it came in a losing effort. So no matter what they showed together, it wasn't enough on this night.
It was also limited to fewer than eight minutes of shared court time.
But it still should be enough to energize this fanbase.
Love looked like a different player as soon as Rubio stepped on the floor. Love cut harder to the basket and battled for position. He was swift on his screens, slipping them whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Coach Rich Adelman's motion offense clicked on all cylinders during Rubio and Love's first-quarter run. The passing prowess of this duo left Orlando defenders scrambling to keep pace with the basketball.
When Rubio moved to the sideline, though, this offense lost its creativity. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the Timberwolves' attack was limited to dump-down passes to Love on a congested block or ill-advised drives from J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour.
The Timberwolves' supporting cast did their job—they kept Minnesota relevant in the Western Conference playoff race with Rubio sidelined.
But now it's up to Love and Rubio to rediscover their chemistry to hold on to that playoff spot (sixth as of this game's conclusion) in what's shaping up to be a deep Western Conference.