NEW ORLEANS — Apparently wise well beyond his 21 years, Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Ricky Rubio did more than finally start his first NBA game and play every second after intermission in an 87-80 victory at New Orleans dominated by teammate Kevin Love’s second-half feats.
He also introduced cosmic principles into the team’s muscle-bound locker room afterward.
Both Rubio and Love played the entire second half, one in which Love scored 28 of his game-high 34 points and wore out a Hornets team missing star guard Eric Gordon with a relentlessness that sent Love to the free-throw line for 18 shots total and 14 in the second half alone.
From 12 points ahead to start the fourth quarter to a 78-78 tie with two minutes left, the Wolves produced a decisive 7-0 run right after an official’s call didn’t go their way, just when last season’s team probably would have wilted.
This time around, Rubio and Love put the game out of reach by getting to the free-throw line for four shots each.
Their only miss came on Love’s last attempt, one that rattled around, came out and cost him a team record for perfection after he had made his first 17 free throws of the night.
He said bye-bye to a record that Tony Campbell and Micheal Williams now still own (16-for-16) only after he clutched a rebound tight and drew a foul with 29 seconds left and the game decided when he could have passed it to Rubio instead.
“He has the karma,” said Rubio, his eyes almost actually twinkling after a game in which he started alongside fellow point guard Luke Ridnour. “We call it karma because he didn’t pass to me the ball. He wanted two free throws and that’s karma and that’s how it works and I tell him. We can run the clock more seconds, but he didn’t want to … so that’s karma.”
With that decision, Love got his final 34th point but watched a small piece of club history disappear on a night when he erased a week’s worth of missed shots against Toronto on Monday and Chicago on Tuesday with a second-half shooting exhibition. He made seven of 11 shots and 13 of 14 free throws after halftime.
“I’m a stat stuffer,” Love said wryly.
He has been accused of that before.
“I have,” he said. “Plenty of times.”
Love made just one of six shots in the first half after he had gone 8-for-34 in the two games before that.
“What I said to myself at halftime you can’t print in the newspaper,” he said.
Then he stopped thinking and just started shooting or driving to the basket every time the Hornets switched their coverage and put a smaller defender on him during pick-and-roll plays with Rubio.
The Wolves ended the first half and began the second with a 20-2 run. They scored the third quarter’s first nine points and were ahead by a dozen points in the fourth quarter, but that all had disappeared by the time the Wolves yelped for a goaltending call against Gustavo Ayon that never came at one end, followed by the three-pointer by the Hornets’ Marco Belinelli at the other end to suddenly tie the score with two minutes left.
“I almost watched it go through the rim,” forward Anthony Tolliver said of a layup swatted away by Ayon after it appeared to hit the backboard. “It was on its way down for sure, but whatever. We just told each other, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’re still right there.’ We still had control of the game.”
Rubio made sure of that by making two plays that drew fouls to get him to the free-throw line.
Then Love got there twice more, even if he provoked the basketball gods that last time.