The first quarter of the season was always going to be a much better means of measuring the floor of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ potential for achievement, as opposed to the team’s ceiling.
Knee injuries to Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy put them on the shelf beside the Wolves’ two best players, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, within the first two weeks of the season. By then, it was already clear that a ravaged roster and a ridiculously easy schedule was going to distort any rational assessment we could make about this team, other than knowing if they were going to be abjectly terrible.
Fortunately for local hoops fans, the Wolves are not terrible. Even if they were to lose Friday night in New Orleans, where they are favored by four points over the Hornets, they will have won half of their first 20 games and remain in the thick of a very crowded playoff race.
Given the generally wretched caliber of the competition thus far, the team’s current 10-9 record isn’t exactly cause to strut. But with all their injuries, coupled with the uncertainties generated by a massive upheaval to the roster during the offseason, they could have become the patsy of the patsies, playing at a level beneath the bottom-feeders in the standings. The floor could have been terribly lower.
But this odd opening phase of the Wolves’ season will soon be over. Within the next week, Minnesota’s schedule is going to become a whole lot tougher. Almost simultaneously, the Wolves should begin taking steps that will enable them to play a whole lot better, as they are slowly but surely rejuvenated by the return of Rubio.
Let’s take a look at the hard part first. Right now eight of the 30 NBA teams have won more than 60 percent of their games. The Wolves have played those teams just three times thus far, and lost each time. They will play those eight opponents, the current NBA elite, 23 more times in their final 60 games.
More specifically, Minnesota has yet to play last year’s NBA Finalists, Miami and Oklahoma City. It has yet to play the Knicks or the Spurs, the Grizzlies or the Hawks. It has yet to play the Lakers, a talented but currently befuddled team that is likely to improve as the season continues.
The easy stretch of the schedule culminates with games Friday at New Orleans (record 5-17), Saturday at home against Dallas (11-11) without its star Dirk Nowitzki, and back on the road Monday in Orlando (9-14). Then the deluge begins, starting with Lebron James and Heat (14-6) in Miami on Tuesday, Kevin Durant and the Thunder (18-4) here at Target Center on Thursday, and Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks (17-5) in Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
The allure of Rubio
Because of a confluence of shrewd planning, diligent rehabilitation and pure serendipity, this sharp uptick in the strength of the Wolves’ opponents will dovetail almost exactly with the activation of Rubio, who during his extremely brief NBA career has been the clear-cut catalyst for the team at both ends of the court.
Here is the place where we insert the obligatory caveats. Rubio tore two significant ligaments, the ACL and the MCL, in his left knee. He hasn’t played an official game in nine months. Because of the nature of the injury, he hasn’t been able to work on the most glaring flaw in his game — his jump shot — during that period. And, even if the advance word is accurate and he is activated for the Dallas game Saturday night, Minnesota is sure to bring him along with appropriate care and caution to avoid re-injury or other physical setbacks.
And, given the stiff competition that awaits, it is unwise to expect a surge in the team’s record even if Rubio flourishes beyond initial expectations as he recovers to full strength.
But there are times when common sense should not be allowed to interfere with a fan’s enthusiasm for his or her team, let alone the glory of basketball, and the return of Rubio is just such an occasion.
It has been eminently satisfying watching the Wolves stay afloat in the standings this season through rugged defense, a superior appreciation for creating and avoiding fouls and free throws, and newfound depth via a variety of fresh faces on the court. But it doesn’t quicken the pulse as much as remembering the frequently breathtaking exploits of Rubio’s truncated rookie season, when he helped guide what was the NBA’s worst team the previous two years (combined record: 32-100) to a winning slate (21-20) as a genuine playoff contender before shredding his knee.
Common sense should not be allowed to mitigate the exhilaration we feel while imagining that in a very short time now we will be treated to the prospect of Kevin Love snagging a contested rebound and zipping one of his patented overhead outlet feeds to Rubio in stride on the wing. The stage will thus be set for the maestro to blend his instinct and intuition with the geometry of his court vision and the adrenaline of his passion for the sublime assist and deliver a long, crazy-angle bounce pass or a high, perfectly arched lob to a streaking Andrei Kirilenko for the flush.
The value of Rubio
Best of all, when it comes to Rubio, we don’t have to choose between lofty aesthetics and deeply rooted fundamentals — he covers both in one fell swoop (and one swell alley-oop).
You want fundamentals, watch Rubio defend the perimeter on the balls of his feet, his arms and legs wide, his peripheral vision on high alert, his mastery as a floor general in service to his defense as he reads the mind of the man he is guarding, cataloging his opponent’s options and calculating the odds of him being able to execute it, thus enhancing his anticipation of how to counter it.
Watch him take the no-look pass to another level. A mere mortal must deploy this maneuver in a perfunctory fashion, looking away from the real intended target of the eventual pass for just a split-second, hopefully long enough to fool the defense but short enough for the mortal to retain his own bearings. Rubio holds that diversionary gaze a crucial split-second longer and aims it more specifically at another teammate, as if he is waiting an extra instant for that teammate, who is in fact the decoy, to break free. Consequently, when he finally does interrupt his dribble and snaps off the pass in another direction — the place he intended all along — the element of surprise is magnified, generating more delight for his teammates, embarrassment for his opponents and “aahhs” from the crowd. The aesthetics are magnificent. But so are the fundamentals.
Consider the variety of replies I received last week when I asked Kirilenko, coach Rick Adelman and assistant coach Bill Bayno for the one area where they felt Rubio’s return would be most valuable to the team. Significantly, I believe each one responded on the basis of what each believed was the team’s biggest need at the time. While in some cases the dynamics required to address those needs were different, Kirilenko, Adelman and Bayno were universal in their confidence that Rubio would handle it.
“Sometimes we don’t move the ball enough,” says Kirilenko. “I think Ricky is someone who can really let us enjoy this process — you know, get the ball, pass it, ask for the ball back, swing it, ask for the ball again and get that ball swinging back and forth. Kevin is great but it is always tougher if only one guy is scoring, especially at the end of games. If everybody has been touching the ball the whole game, everybody can pick it up during the crunch moments. With Ricky, there will be ball rotation and everybody will be touching it.”
For Adelman, the most beneficial value of Rubio is “breaking down the defense, for sure. He is going to get to the middle of the defense and break it down and he is going to find people. He just has a flair for it. You can just see it in practice; he finds people in the right spots and he is also really good at adjusting to what the defense is doing. So I think breaking things down and getting us easier shots.”
Bayno takes a big-picture view. “The No. 1 thing is his energy and leadership. Ricky is a natural born leader. And his energy is contagious. He has been talking, helping us behind the scenes and on the sidelines when he wasn’t even playing. And after what he did last year, he built up a lot of equity in the locker room. People remember what he did last year so it isn’t a new guy coming in to talk or lead that hasn’t put the time in.”
The painstaking rehab is nearly over. Hopefully, the payoff from that industry will be the durable reward of a healthy career. Meanwhile, Lebron, KD and ’Melo await on the near horizon.