The normal pattern for the Minnesota Timberwolves during their rebuilding years has been to hope to see growth out of young players in the second half of the season because there often isn't anything for the team to play for. It's happened with guys like Kevin Love, Wes Johnson, Derrick Williams, and now Ricky Rubio. This season is quite a bit different because injuries to the team have decimated any chance they have at coming through on high expectations from the preseason to return to the playoffs.
Instead, they've been waiting to see if Rubio had any magic in him for the night while they wait for everybody to get healthy. With news from the Wolves that Chase Budinger has been cleared for contact practice, Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic are a couple practices away from returning to the lineup, and awaiting Love's trip to the surgeon in New York City on Wednesday to find out when he'll be able to return to the Wolves, the getting healthy part is starting to take care of itself.
It's too late for a playoff push, but it's instrumental in seeing what this team has with its current core as they prepare for one of the most pivotal offseasons in franchise history.
Against the San Antonio Spurs Tuesday night, the team was once again short-handed and relying on the effort and desperation of Rubio to make them competitive against a superior team. Sure, the Spurs were without Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, and Tony Parker, but we've seen this team rely heavily on their system and ingenious coach to make it out the other side of random regular season games.
I say desperation when it comes to Rubio because that's essentially how he looks out on the court right now. His movements are frantic; his effort is almost panicky in the way he attacks the defense, crashes for rebounds, and pesters his opponents on defense as he hopes to spark a turnover that will lead to a much-needed score. You worry he's going to work himself to the point of complete exhaustion and that his body will break down like we saw it do a year ago when he tore his ACL.
With a short-handed roster of his own, Rubio did his typical stat-stuffing that he's done so often over the last month. Since the All-Star break, Rubio has averaged 12.5 points, 9.1 assists, 6.2 rebounds, 4.2 turnovers, and 3.3 steals. He's come within two rebounds of his first career triple-double twice, within three rebounds once, and within one rebound and one assists once during this stretch.
Against the Spurs on Tuesday, he finally accomplished his first career triple-double with 21 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists. This wasn't a Ricky Davis triple-dip; it was legit. Not only did he accomplish it in a game, but he did it by leading a blowout 107-83 victory over the undermanned Spurs. But the victory is all that mattered to Rubio; it's all that ever matters to the Spanish point guard.
"It's good to have a triple-double," Rubio admitted after the game, "but especially the win against the … I think they have the best record in the NBA, I think. I know they had Tim Duncan, and Leonard, and Tony Parker out, there's a lot of players. But they are a great team and we played great today.
"Stats is the last thing I see ... Victories are the most important thing.”
With Rubio, it's been all about leadership from his example on the court. The knee is healthy and not something he worries about anymore. There is no comeback from the ACL tear that happened one year and three days ago. He's simply back, and probably better than he was before the injury.
“You know, he's playing with such a resolve," Rick Adelman said after his 993rd career victory, "just trying to get us over the hump. When you see it, he's had that effort but we had so many people step up tonight that it really made a big difference."
The Wolves have been one of the worst teams in the NBA at putting the ball in the basket this season. They have the third worst field goal percentage in the league, the seventh worst free throw percentage, and at 29.3 percent, no team in history has ever shot more 3-pointers per game and made such a low percentage of them. It's not easy to believe his teammates will make shots when Rubio sets them up, but he continues to create opportunities for him.
“Sometimes you just don't feel it," Rubio said about the Wolves' shooting, "and we have to trust each other. I trust my teammates to make shots. They do it in the practice, so we just have to keep improving and do it in the games. Sometimes it's hard and we know, but we just have to get better.”
Minnesota hit 12 of 20 from 3-point range against the Spurs. It was just the fifth time this season the Wolves made double-digit threes and the second most in a game, behind the 13 they hit against the Philadelphia 76ers back in December.
"I think we did a pretty good job," Rubio said, "especially when the ball gets in the basket, especially on 3s, it's easier to play. It was fun to play today.
"It's hard when you're missing a lot of shots staying focus, but we just have to remain aggressive.”
Rubio's 13 rebounds were a career-high for him and it was something he's been trying to do with Love and Pekovic out of the lineup.
“When Kevin and Pek are out, there's a lot of rebounds for us," Rubio said, "so we have to take advantage of that. I just try to be aggressive all the time."
This isn't a season-changing victory for the Timberwolves, by any means. They're still waiting for 80 percent of their starting lineup to return to the court and join Rubio in trying to show the organization exactly what they have right now. They're waiting for players to be able to practice to get back up to speed enough to rejoin the team for real games. Their schedule over the next week won't really allow for that, which forces them to be more patient than they already have been.
Until those guys can return (most likely around March 21 in Sacramento after they can squeeze in two practices), the team just has to hope to catch fire behind Rubio's effort as he racks up stat lines that they can make meaningful with more surprise victories.
“Our team, the way we've been going," Adelman explained, "it's nice to see someone have a game like that and it's nice to see him get rewarded.”