MINNEAPOLIS – At first, it looked like a double-wicket shot. It truly appeared – in real time – as if Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio had delivered a perfectly executed, improbably conceived bounce pass through his own legs AND through Dallas defender Elton Brand‘s legs too.
Only in replay, slowed down, was it clear that Rubio’s pass had gone just past Brand’s left leg rather than behind it, not that the Mavericks forward noticed. The basketball reached its destination right about the time the Target Center crowd realized what it was seeing, and Greg Stiemsma finished off with a simple layup for a very unsimple highlight.
“Playing with Rajon [Rondo] last year, I’ll say it was kind of similar, where you almost have to expect the ball every time you roll, every time you dive,” Stiemsma said of playing his first game with Rubio, the Wolves’ clever and, finally, available point guard.
“We’ve been running through some drills with him the last couple weeks, some pick-and-roll stuff. Even there, Ricky’s going between his legs, behind his back, all that in the drills.”
That one was Rubio’s piece de resistance (that’s Spanish, right?) in his first game in nine months. But there were others: Rubio shoveling a pass to J.J. Barea as they crisscrossed for a reverse layup. Rubio sticking a long arm into O.J. Mayo‘s passing lane, switching defense into offense in an instant as his dark eyes immediately searched for an open man. Rubio working the baseline like Gretzky behind the net, finding Luke Ridnour 18 feet out for a jumper.
With Rubio running the point, there’s always the risk for his four teammates of snuffing another of the kid’s wonderous assists and snuffing a video treasure. Worse, there’s the risk of getting hit in the head or the face by the ball if one is caught unaware. And so it was a risky night in downtown Minneapolis Saturday, where Rubio continued his comeback from knee surgery.
It is continuing, for al the excitement and the instant results. Rubio was on a minutes leash of (cough) 16-18 minutes Saturday and will build up his participation time gradually, coach Rick Adelman said. He probably won’t play in both ends of the Wolves’ back-to-back trip to Orlando Monday and Miami Tuesday. And after all the inactivity and rehab from surgery to repair the ACL and MCL ligaments torn in his left knee in March, Rubio’s performance curve figures to have a few ripples, maybe even reversals, in it.
Still, he electrified the crowd of 18,173 (the Wolves sold an extra 1,750 tickets in the hours before tipoff) and seemed to make them forget that All-Star Kevin Love was a late scratch due to the flu (Love hoped to play through his bruised right thumb, before the Wolves sent him home as a sickie). Rubio certainly animated Adelman, who lavished praise on his team afterward and even saved a little for himself.
“When he has the ball in his hands,” Adelman said, “I’m a lot better coach.”
If Houdini had come back from surgery, he would have started with a few card tricks. But Rubio came back sawing the lady in half, only from behind his back.
His first shift began with 1:47 left in the first quarter and ended at 6:16 of the second. In that 7:31 stint, he had four points, four assists and a steal. The Target Center had its second lineup thrill of the season – Love surprised them all with his sudden comeback from a broken hand the night before Thanksgiving. Folks boomed “Rubio! Rubio!” for him just for trotting to the scorer’s table.
“I can’t say with words how it felt,” the 22-year-old said.
Derrick Williams could. The disappointing No. 2 pick in 2011 scored 12 points with five rebounds in the first half, Rubio’s return applying paddles to his game. “That’s the best I’ve felt since I’ve been here, honestly,” Williams said.
Rubio’s second shift started at 4:37 of the third quarter and ended 7:15 minutes later. That pushed him to 14:46 for the game, Adelman holding back a few of Rubio’s rationed minutes just in case. And sure enough, when the Wolves’ 15-point lead dwindled to one with 3:16 left, Rubio came back in.
Key moment this time? A pile-up near the sideline with Dallas’ husky Derek Fisher. Fisher already was coming on like a Grinch trying to swipe Christmas, scoring nine points in the fourth. Now he was tangled up on the floor with the Spanish unicorn. But two men went down and two got up, both fine, Fisher tapping Rubio on the chest.
“Once guys come out there, everything’s free to go,” Fisher said. “But you’re obviously never trying to hurt a guy. I just asked him if he was OK real quick.”
Rubio’s third shift ended with regulation, his shot from out top bouncing off, same as a couple of Minnesota tips. Adelman showed great restraint in sitting him through the overtime. There was the minutes limit and, besides, Rubio was tired.
“That kills me inside,” Rubio said, smiling as always, “but we did a great job.”
Officially, Rubio was a mere +1 in plus/minus. But his impact had been more contagious to the other Wolves than Love’s flu. Andrei Kirilenko dominated the 12-4 overtime with five points, three boards and an assist.
“We’re going to do big things with this team this year, just showing how we played in overtime, getting that 10-0 run,” Rubio said. “It was amazing … They gave me a great gift, that W in overtime.”
Only fair for a guy who dishes so many gifts himself. As Dallas’ Dahntay Jones said of Rubio’s impact: “You have people flying down the court, because they know he’s looking for them. He’s special.”
Kirilenko ticked off the names of the great playmaking point guards with whom he has played: John Stockton, Mark Jackson, Deron Williams. “Ricky is one of those guys because when he sees opportunity, he goes there. I learned from the best how to get open – and how not to get hit on the back,” Kirilenko said.
“It’s always a privilege to play with those kind of guys. Especially if you can play without the ball – you know if you get open, you’re going to get the ball.”
Rubio changes the whole dynamic of playing without the ball – no one is without the ball for long when he’s on the floor. Rubio’s back, and defenders’ heads are swiveling again.