DALLAS — On a night when the Minnesota Timberwolves were excited to get point guard Ricky Rubio back, and the Dallas Mavericks readied for life without point guard Rajon Rondo, both teams found things to like even if only one could win the game.
The Mavericks never trailed in the 100-94 victory over the Wolves on Monday night at American Airlines Center.
Dallas led by as many as 21 points in the game, but Minnesota climbed within two points with 90 seconds to play.
Mavs guard Monta Ellis led all scorers with 23 points, forward Chandler Parsons had 18, and forward Dirk Nowitzki eased into an efficient 16 points.
“It’s just different,” Chandler said of playing without Rondo. “He’s a floor general, and he gets us in our offense so well. He’s an unbelievable passer, and we’re going to miss him. The good news is we do have three veteran point guards.”
The majority of the game appropriately felt like “Groundhog Day.” Dallas jumped out to a 10-0 advantage and later led 45-24 in the second quarter. Minnesota did a nice job getting back in the game before halftime, trailing by just seven, and then the remainder of the game was a rerun of Dallas rebuffing multiple Wolves runs to rebuild the lead back to 10.
The positive for Minnesota, which will take any good news after dropping to 8-40, is that Rubio is back after missing 42 games. He severely sprained his left ankle Nov. 7.
“It feels good, finally,” Rubio said. “I went through a long recovery. I feel good, and I’m happy to be back. I’ve been doing a good job keeping in shape. Of course, it’s not the same game shape … but it felt pretty good and I feel great.”
He showed some awesome flashes, doling out a beautiful no-look pass at one point, firing a wicked off-the-dribble bounce pass through a path of defenders and lofting an alley-oop to forward Andrew Wiggins. Also encouraging was Rubio draining four of nine shots for 10 points, one of five Wolves players to score in double figures.
“They were letting me shoot, and I have been working on my shot and I’m going to keep shooting,” said Rubio, who played 21 minutes. “I was only going to play like 15 or 20 minutes, and I had to get out there and try to do my thing.”
Rubio really started to get things going in the fourth quarter as the Wolves again took swipes at Dallas’ 11-point lead.
Minnesota pulled with 92-89 on two Wiggins free throws, but with the stoppage, Wolves coach Flip Saunders then removed Rubio from the game after the guard exceeded his expected playing-time limit.
Rubio slowly walked to the bench, looking not thrilled with the decision.
However, at this point of the season, Saunders placed more value on protecting the newly crowned face of the franchise (with forward Kevin Love now in Cleveland) over potentially losing momentum without him.
Even then, Dallas could not put Minnesota away. Wolves guard Mo Williams’ two free throws made it 96-94, and Minnesota had a chance to tie or go ahead with 90 seconds left. Center Nikola Pekovic worked inside against Mavs center Tyson Chandler but missed a tough underhand scoop shot. At the other end, former Wolves guard J.J. Barea, who started in place of Rondo, stung his old team with a difficult baseline drive that put Dallas up 98-94.
“It was great. I have some good friends on that team,” Barea said. “I spent three years over there with some good people. It’s always good to help my team win, and we did our job tonight.”
After a couple Minnesota misses on a frenzied possession as the clock ticked down, Barea was fouled and sealed the game with a pair of free throws with 17.1 seconds left.
The victory was Dallas’ third in a row and improved the Mavs’ record to 33-17 with a trip to Golden State coming up on Wednesday. The Mavs know they will be without Rondo, who sustained a broken orbital bone and broken nose on Saturday. There is no timetable yet for his return.
Potentially compounding Dallas’ point-guard issue was a late-game injury to Devin Harris, who hurt his left leg after Pekovic fell on him, pinning Harris’ leg.
“I don’t know anything yet other than what I saw, which is a guy fell on his leg and it looked like he got twisted around,” Mavs coach Carlisle said. “We will get it checked out and we will see. Hopefully it isn’t bad.”
X-rays came back negative, and Harris said afterward that he felt better than when he limped off the floor.
The Wolves need a bit more from rookie sensation Wiggins, who fought off a sluggish start to finish with 14 points, but on 4-of-14 shooting. He was coming off his ballyhooed, 33-point effort Saturday against LeBron James and Cleveland, the team that originally drafted him No. 1.
Minnesota guard Kevin Martin finished with 19 points but was just 1-for-3 from beyond the arc, where the Wolves were 3-for-13. Wolves forward Thaddeus Young and Williams each had 15 points.
NOTES: G Raymond Felton, little-used since joining Dallas in a trade during the offseason and dogged by a sprained ankle sustained during the preseason, will become part of coach Rick Carlisle’s rotation with PG Rajon Rondo sidelined. Felton scored three points Monday. … Mavs F Chandler Parsons returned to the starting lineup Monday after missing the previous two games with a stomach bug. … Minnesota G Mo Williams also returned to the lineup after a three-game absence due to a hip injury. … Wolves rookie G Zach LaVine missed his second consecutive game since spraining his ankle Friday. … The Timberwolves return home Wednesday to play the Miami Heat.
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