DALLAS — For a kid who knows only how to play the game with pure joy, this is pure hell.
The two ugly scars that mar his left knee each measure five inches long, one starting in the middle of his knee cap and jagging down. The other curves around the left side of the knee like a misshapen crescent moon.
As Ricky Rubio pulled up the black, padded knee sleeve that made the permanent markings of reconstructive surgery disappear, he wished the trials that still come with his ongoing recovery, one that wiped out the Olympics and all but 10 games now of this season, could just disappear, too. He softly shook his floppy mane of dark hair and flashed a small, if only brief, smile.
“It’s hard because I still have a little pain and it’s something you have to fight through and get through,” said the 22-year-old Spaniard before the Minnesota Timberwolves lost 113-98 to the Dallas Mavericks, a fourth consecutive defeat for Minnesota and yet another game that Rubio would come off the bench and be limited by a minutes restriction.
“I talk with the guys who had the same injury and they say about a year, a year-and-a-half [after surgery] they started feeling, like, normal,” Rubio continued. “It’s tough when you’re playing with something in your mind; you don’t want to think about it, but it’s in your mind that you’re going slower and you are not who you used to be.
“That’s going to come, but you have to be patient.”
Rubio made his season debut on Dec. 15 against Dallas and played 18 minutes. He dazzled the home crowd with eight points and nine assists, including the highlight of the night, a no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass into the lane to Greg Stiemsma for a layup. It’s about as good as it’s gotten.
Back spasms, likely caused by overcompensation for his knee, took him out of the lineup after just five games. He returned on Jan. 8 and in the four games prior to Monday, Rubio, averaging 3.8 points and 4.6 assists, had made one of 12 shots. His assists dwindled from eight to seven to three to two, all while playing no more than 22 minutes.
“You see flashes, but you can see he is nowhere near like he was last season. He was moving,” teammate J.J. Barea said. “The way he plays he needs to move like he used to move, where he’s faster and he’ll be able to get to pick his spots, get wherever he wants so he can make those passes.”
Flashes came and went Monday night against the Mavs. By the time acting coach Terry Porter subbed Rubio in with 3:20 to go in the first quarter, listless Minnesota trailed 22-11. Rubio and benchmate Barea got the Wolves clicking. Rubio directed an alley-oop pass to Dante Cunningham, drained a jumper and kept a possession alive with a swooping rebound in the lane as the Wolves closed to 39-36 and then 45-41.
But Rubio also couldn’t finish a drive after getting around O.J. Mayo, with little lift leaving his attempt short of the rim. In the final moments of Rubio’s nearly 13 minutes in the first half, Dallas went up 48-41, and then, with Rubio on the bench, 55-45 at the half.
He never got a fair shot to make a dent in the second half. Porter — serving for Rick Adelman while he tends to his wife in the hospital — kept Rubio tethered to the bench for the first 10 1/2 minutes of the third quarter as the Wolves’ first unit mirrored its awful first quarter and allowed the game to slip away. Rubio checked in with Minnesota, reeling from injuries and a rotation in tatters, trailing 87-68.
He finished with six points, six assists and five rebounds, and was a plus-7 — the highest rating among the eight Wolves that played at least 21 minutes.
Rubio’s 2-for-3 shooting night tied his season high for made buckets and figured as his best shooting percentage among the 10 games he’s played, an indication of how brutal it’s been after he averaged 10.6 points and 8.2 assists in a tantalizing rookie campaign before a torn ACL ended it after 41 games.
“It’s hard because you work hard for eight or nine months to get back and it doesn’t stop here,” Rubio said. “You have to work even harder now to get back in shape, to get back to the point you want to be feeling the game again, and that doesn’t come easy.”
Yet, add logging a season-high 27 minutes Monday and a desperate Wolves team slipping down the standings at 16-18, can at least glean some positives as they head back to frigid Minneapolis.
“I tell him to be patient, to keep working on his legs, keep working on his body. It’s going to turn around sooner or later, but he’s got to be patient and stay positive,” Barea said. “And I tell him he’s young. He’s 22, he has nothing to worry about.”
Maybe so. But right now, it’s hell.