HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Nothing can change this lost season for Ricky Rubio and the Minnesota Timberwolves. His first career triple-double Tuesday night reminded what might have been, but more importantly, what’s still to come.
Look no further than Chicago and the ongoing road to full recovery for Derrick Rose to understand the complications and fears associated with a return from reconstructive knee surgery. While Rose still has yet to make his season debut, Rubio is three months into his return from a torn ACL in his left knee that short-circuited the end of his 2011-12 season and the start of this one.
It’s been just the last four to six weeks that the 22-year-old Spaniard, who acknowledged early on the mental strain of coming back, has started to resemble the tantalizing floor magician who awes fans and inspires teammates.
He pulled a rabbit out of his hat and more Tuesday in a blowout win against the San Antonio Spurs, producing season-highs with 21 points and 13 rebounds, plus 12 assists. He was playing with full confidence, dribbling behind his back to beat defenders into the paint, dropping no-look passes, firing baseball passes, lobs and spotting cutters with lightning-quick bounce passes that somehow skip into the hands of his target.
“That’s the first one of many to come in his career,” teammate J.J. Barea said of Rubio’s triple-double.
The first was just a matter of time. Over the last 15 games, Rubio has eight double-doubles. He twice missed a triple-double by two rebounds and once each by three rebounds and one rebound.
“Yeah of course,” Rubio said afterward when asked if it feels good to notch the triple-double. “It’s good to have a triple-double, but especially a win against [the Spurs]. I know they got Tim Duncan, [Kawhi] Leonard and Tony Parker out, so a lot of players, but they are a great team and we played great.”
Before anybody discounts Rubio’s performance and the Wolves’ 107-83 win against the shorthanded Spurs, let’s just remember that this was a Minnesota team playing without Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Chase Budinger as part of an injured list that keeps on going. It’s been a carousel of devastating injuries since the start of the season and the result is a 22-39 record when a return to the playoffs was the predominant offseason forecast.
On Tuesday night, starting along with Rubio was Luke Ridnour, Mickael Gelabale, Derrick Williams and Greg Stiemsma, mostly a decent lineup of backups on any other team, in fact, on this team with a full roster.
That won’t happen until next season when playoff hopes will again rise. Rubio’s gradual improvement and more recently his sudden leaps are the greatest hope of all. In the last 15 games he’s averaging 13.6 ppg and 9.0 apg to lift his season averages to 9.2 and 7.3.
The most gratifying number, however, just might be 34.9. That’s his average minutes in that span, raising his season average to 28.9 mpg. Since Feb. 1, Rubio has logged at least 30 minutes in 14 of 19 games and at least 35 minutes nine times. Prior to Feb. 1, when he was often limited by a minutes restriction, Rubio hit the 30-minute mark twice (30 and 31 minutes) in 17 games while averaging 23.9 mpg, much of it coming off the bench.
“He is playing with such resolve trying to get us over the hump,” Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. “He has had that effort but we had so many people step up [against the Spurs]. It really made a big difference. I thought he was going to expire in the third quarter when I took him out. He just played so hard in those first six minutes.”
With this disappointing season winding down, nothing can be more meaningful to the Wolves than Rubio’s rise.