The playoff race, I know it’s a huge game and I was being smart and I know that the team needs me, but this game was huge. —Jazz guard Ricky Rubio
MINNEAPOLIS — Random staff workers, ex-teammates and coaches passed by Ricky Rubio in the hallway of the Target Center on Easter Sunday.
Most of them stopped to greet the Utah Jazz floor general as he wrapped up his pregame routine.
It wasn’t until 39 minutes before the tipoff that the Jazz announced Rubio would be playing and starting against his former Timberwolves team.
But according to him, there was no chance he was going to sit this one out.
“The staff is really good, and against Memphis I was feeling it, but I said there’s no chance I’m not playing tonight,” Rubio said.
Rubio missed Friday’s victory against Memphis with left hamstring soreness but was cleared for a return to the place he spent the first six seasons of his professional career. He didn’t disappoint, either.
Rubio came out hot with 16 first-half points and finished with a team-high 23 points, seven rebounds and three assists in a 121-97 victory for the Jazz. He also nailed five of his six 3-point attempts, falling one shy of his career-high for made triples in a game.
“The playoff race, I know it’s a huge game and I was being smart and I know that the team needs me, but this game was huge,” Rubio said. “I’ve been feeling comfortable for the last couple months, filled with a lot of confidence, and playing here was emotional but at the same time I knew it was a huge game so I focused myself to really have a big game.”
The Timberwolves were playing without All-Star wing Jimmy Butler (right knee meniscus surgery) and starting point guard Jeff Teague (sore right knee). Former MVP Derrick Rose was available after missing five games with a sprained right ankle but received a DNP-coach’s decision.
Butler sported a vintage Kevin Garnett Timberwolves uniform underneath his blazer on the bench while talking trash to his former college teammate Jae Crowder, but it didn’t stop Utah’s bench from outscoring Minnesota’s, 50-26.
“It’s hard to play if you don’t play defense,” said Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau. “It’s about competition, competing on every play. We always talk about the two things are execution and intensity. What we did tonight wasn’t good enough or even close.”
Crowder ended with 10 points and two steals and Dante Exum added 14 points with five assists, while Jonas Jerebko poured in 13 points in 16 minutes off the oak as the Jazz look to finish strong in this final playoff push. With the victory, Utah (44-33) has now jumped ahead of Minnesota for the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference standings.
“We’re very locked in. We know there’s five games left and we’ve got to take it game by game, every game is important,” Jerebko said. “Every game this season is important, but now it really comes down to it, and you might see guys concentrate a little bit more, but we’re just trying to get prepared for these playoffs and trying to win as many games as we can before that.”
Utah shot a blistering 60.5 percent from the field while holding Minnesota to 42.2 percent for the game. Minnesota star Andrew Wiggins went off for 17 first-half points and ended with 23 points, while All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns logged 20 points, and seven points against Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who grabbed 13 boards, four blocks and six points but was a plus-22 on the floor.
Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell set the franchise record for the most 20-plus point games in a row (nine) after hitting 14 of his 21 points in the second half.
“We just understood what was at stake,” Mitchell said.
Although this game marked Rubio’s second time being back in Minnesota, he described the feeling as being just as emotional.
The Jazz will now return to face the Los Angeles Lakers at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Vivint Arena after going 14-1 in their last 15 road games.
“I spent six years over here so it’s a lot of memories, good memories, and it felt great to be back and win,” Rubio said of returning to Minnesota.