HANG TIME MIDWEST BUREAU — Sombreros are wrong on a couple of levels. First, it’s a little shaky to reduce anyone’s ethnic heritage to an article of clothing and a clichéd one at that. (There, HTB’s political correctness obligation is officially met.)
Second, and more pertinent, the big, floppy brimmed hats that dotted Target Center Friday night are a product of Mexico. Ricky Rubio is an import from Spain.
But a little misdirected enthusiasm – along with the “Ole! Ole!” calls – was understandable given the excitement and the circumstances Friday night in Minneapolis. Rubio, the much ballyhooed No. 5 pick from the 2009 NBA draft for whom Timberwolves fans had waited two years, had the locals en fuego and the mighty Miami Heat in trouble. For a while, anyway, in the Heat’s 103-101 victory.
In only his third NBA game, Rubio scored 12 points with 12 assists and six rebounds – the first Minnesota player with a stats line like that since Sam Cassell in 2004. He ran the Wolves’ attack in nearly 31 minutes off the bench. Hit a pair of 3-point shots among his 4-of-7 shooting. Dazzled the joint several times with uncanny, casual reckless (for most guys, at least) passes that generally found their marks – except for that costly fling past Wayne Ellington, out of bounds, in the final minutes. It was one of Rubio’s five turnovers.
Rubio’s ability to ignite both his team and the Minnesota crowd earned the ultimate respect late, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s beat writer, Jerry Zgoda:
Most telling about his presence already: The Heat put LeBron [James] on him near the end of the game and double- and even triple-teamed as the game progressed, trying without much success to get the ball out of his hands on pick-and-rolls.
Said [Heat guard Dwyane] Wade: “I knew he was good from the Olympics, but he’s gotten even better. He’s mastered looking you off and making the pass. The kid has something. He has that Steve Nash capability. They have a gem in him. He’s going to be great for them.”
Who knows? In time, Rubio might even match Cassell’s notorious cojones dance and big-game moments, on top of his double-double capabilities.
Getting guarded by James is only the latest test thrown at Rubio here at the start of his NBA career. He faced Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook in the season opener (and frankly got into Westbrook’s head a little). The next night it was Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings, who had battled with him in Europe a few years ago.
In Minnesota’s next two games, Rubio will face Dallas’ Jason Kidd and San Antonio’s Tony Parker. A few days later, he’ll get measured against this season’s No. 1 pick, Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving.
In other words, Rubio can pass but he cannot hide.
“Oh yeah, he’s a rookie and he has got a lot of hype,” Wolves assistant coach Terry Porter said the other night in Milwaukee. “[As] a veteran you want to go at him and see what he’s made of. That’s part of the process. That’s the initiation, so to speak, to the point guard-hood of the NBA.”
The challenges for Rubio will be coming from within as well. The Miami loss marked Minnesota’s second consecutive game with 25 turnovers; if Rubio gets moved into the starting lineup in place of Luke Ridnour anytime soon, he’ll bear more of the burden for clean-up there. It also was the Wolves’ 18th consecutive loss, a skid that – thanks to the lockout – stretches back to March 11.
But the game Friday also was Minnesota’s second consecutive sellout. It also was the first time since 1991-92 that the Wolves maxed out the house in their first two games of the season. Target Center was only a year old then, the Kevin Garnett era was still four years away and Aussie center Luc Longley was that season’s prize import.