MINNEAPOLIS – Ricky Rubio figures to be a lot of things when he finally returns to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ lineup nine months after knee surgery and rehab: A hardwood savior. A gate attraction. An emotional boost. A coaching challenge, however welcome, as far as blending Rick Adelman‘s new with his existing.
Most of all, Rubio’s 2012-13 debut – expected to come Saturday night when the team plays host to the Dallas Mavericks at Target Center – figures to be a big happy headline for a franchise rather lacking in those across its 24 seasons.
Here are three more things the charismatic second-year point guard will be when he plays for the first time since tearing the ACL and MCL ligaments in his left knee in an innocent-looking collision with Kobe Bryant back on March 9:
- A diversion (from the Kevin Love hubbub that flaired up Tuesday over an Internet story full of unhappy quotes from the Wolves’ power forward).
- A one-man cavalry (shoring up a backcourt thinned by injuries to Brandon Roy, Josh Howard and Malcolm Lee).
- And … an unfair advantage?
It almost seems that way. The Timberwolves are 11-9 despite playing a quarter of their season without Rubio and the first 10 games without Love, the All-Star power forward who broke two bones in his right hand in training camp. They have weathered other injuries, too, but there they sit in the seventh spot in the Western Conference standings, generally getting healthier and positioned to climb even higher.
When Rubio went down last spring, the fear within the team was that his knee injury would cost Minnesota not just a run at the 2012 postseason but possibly a shot at getting there in 2013, too. If the Wolves started, say, 6-14 through their first 20 games, they might find themselves too far back, needing too many breaks and coincidences, to climb back above .500 to chase down even the eighth seed.
Well, look at them now. With Adelman doing a masterful job of plugging holes and finding mismatches, the Wolves are off to their best start since Kevin Garnett‘s last season with them. They have won five of their last six games and are 6-6 against teams that are .500 or better. If the goal was to stay competitive and viable as a playoff challenger while Love and Rubio were out, the Wolves have overachieved.
The schedule is a grind at the moment. The back-to-back this weekend vs. the Hornets and Mavericks is followed hard by an Orlando-Miami swing Monday and Tuesday, during which Rubio’s minutes – or even involvement in one or both – likely will be carefully managed. (A confab of team and medical personnel Saturday morning was expected to give him the green-light to face Dallas.)
After this stretch, though, Minnesota plays just four games in a stretch of 14 days, three across the 12 days from Dec. 21 through Jan. 1. It is 9-5 when getting at least one day of rest between games.
Rubio’s impact could be profound. He returns to an overhauled roster, with only six faces back from the group that went 5-20 after he went down.
The team’s two Clydesdales up front – Nikola Pekovic and Love – should get more opportunities at the rim, with Rubio’s interior passes and the defensive attention he’ll draw. In particular, Love – who might have come back too soon, judging by his continued hand discomfort and miserable shooting percentages — should get more open looks as he and the point guard sync up their games again.
The pressure Rubio puts on the defense and the angles he sees could be golden for shooters such as Chase Buddinger and Roy, if only they were healthy now. Luke Ridnour will benefit in their absence. And so will the team’s Russian connection. The way Andrei Kirilenko moves without the ball and uses the baseline, he and Rubio could be good for a couple highlight set-ups per night. And teaming Alexey Shved – no longer a mere Rubio placeholder – with him in the backcourt hints at some crafty ball-sharing and scoring chances at one end, better-than-expected defense at the other.
“He’s one of those kind of guys who can make a difference in the game,” Kirilenko told reporters after a Wolves practice this week. “In practice you see that every attack, every possession offensively and defensively. Those guys are pretty rare. … He’s just adding some more something to the game. He can run the ball, he can really create that up-tempo and his passes are unbelievable.”
And they’ll be coming now to rev up, rather than just rescue, the Timberwolves.