Pressure rests on Rubio's shoulders as Wolves attempt playoff push

When the Timberwolves are shorthanded, Ricky Rubio seems to elevate his play to another level. He must remain assertive, however, in the days ahead.

Ricky Rubio's two highest-scoring games this season have come with three of his fellow starters sidelined, including his career-high 25-point showing Feb. 8 against Portland. It will be important for him to remain aggressive when the Timberwolves are completely healthy in the near future.

Rick Scuteri / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- Midway through the third quarter of what had the makings of another tight Timberwolves setback, Ricky Rubio deftly combined awkward with acrobatic.

The point guard's 180-degree, one-armed, no-look shot didn't provide the biggest momentum swing in Minnesota's 110-101 win at Phoenix (there were plenty of those to choose from in the fourth quarter alone, when the Timberwolves outscored the Suns 35-20). It took some luck, too -- it's not often a completely blind attempt banks home so effortlessly.

But before Rubio drew a Goran Dragic foul on his way to an uncanny 3-point play, he made a conscious decision. To attack. Hard. Without hesitation.

And something good happened on the other end of it.

So much has been made of the pass-first, shoot-fifth Spaniard's shot -- or lack thereof -- in his third NBA season, from Twitter banter to full-length features in the local papers to Rubio himself seeking help from a professional shooting coach in California during the All-Star break. And rightly so, for it needs some serious work.

Rubio's post-practice shooting sessions are a thing of beauty. His form is as textbook as that of Chase Budinger, his release quicker than Kevin Love's.

But come game time, and there's some sort of switch within Rubio that gets bumped to "off" while he walks from the Timberwolves' dressing room to the Target Center floor. His jump shots are flat (36.3 percent overall), he struggles to finish at the rim (43.5 percent from inside the restricted area), and he's not enough of a scoring threat (8.9 points per game) to force defenses to respect his shot or coach Rick Adelman to trust him consistently in the fourth quarter.

"We need him to do more," Adelman said.

Generally. Not lately.

Coming off Tuesday's victory, the Timberwolves aren't reeling. But a couple more losses, and the thread their playoff hopes hang upon will be on the verge of snapping.

Two of their three leading scorers are out with minor injuries that won't seem to go away. They're playing with a makeshift frontcourt and currently relying on still-recovering Chase Budinger and rookie Shabazz Muhammad for auxiliary help on the wing.

That's killing time for Minnesota's much-beloved point guard.

Simply put, when the Timberwolves are shorthanded, Rubio elevates himself to another level. It's a natural progression, sure, but the confidence he exudes when driving or pulling up isn't there when his first thought is to dish to Love, Nikola Pekovic or Martin.

"There's more shots to take, you know?" Rubio said. "When we've got scorers like them go out, everyone has to step up."

But in addition to perfecting his technique and developing a midrange game, it appears Rubio -- and the Timberwolves -- would benefit if he adopted a similar attitude when Nikola Pekovic (right-ankle bursitis) and Kevin Martin (broken left thumb) do return to the lineup.

Rubio's two highest-scoring games this season have come with three of his fellow starters sidelined, including his career-high 25-point showing Feb. 8 against Portland. In eight contests this season where Minnesota's been without two or three starters -- all have occurred in February -- he averages 11.9 points per game on 41 percent shooting and shot 33 percent from beyond the arc. He gets to the line more frequently, too. In those eight contests, he averages 4.8 free-throw attempts per game, compared to his overall season average of 3.1.

And it's not that the pass-happiness subsides in such scenarios, either; Rubio's franchise-record-tying 17 assists came last Wednesday without Pekovic and Martin around and against the NBA's No. 1 defense, in Indiana.

"I think it gives him opportunities," Adelman said. "It's a great opportunity for him to go out and be aggressive."

But when Minnesota's ammunition locker is fully stocked, Rubio falls back on old habits developed during years of international play, when he wasn't asked to provide the scoring required of almost every point guard in today's NBA.

That's not all bad; heading into Saturday's game at Sacramento, Rubio leads the league in steals per game and ranks fourth in assists per game.

"That's him," backup one-guard J.J. Barea said. "I don't care if he makes shots or not. As long as he moves the ball . . . and he plays hard on the other end, I don't care if he makes shots."

But if Rubio's step-up performances and the words of hoop sage Adelman are any indication, Barea, his teammates and every stakeholder involved with this franchise probably should care.

Assertiveness from the point guard spot doesn't just guarantee more points on the scoreboard; it causes defenses to pay more attention to him and leave a few more spots on the floor vulnerable. In today's pick-and-roll-dominated league, it's currently easy for defenders to automatically stay on the hoop side of screens set for Rubio, because there's no jumper for them to respect.

Unless he steps up, gets that pretty arc on his shot and starts hitting them like he's shown, in spurts, he can.

"It changes the way they defend him," said Adelman, in his 23rd season as a head coach. "I think it's gonna come. I think everybody, they want to see the perfect player all the time, and there's a lot of guys who come into this league that aren't perfect players. And over the course of years, they develop things. I think once he can do that, they can't go under the screens anymore."

But, as Adelman alluded to, it requires patience. Rubio has yet to play a full NBA season after tearing his ACL near the end of his rookie campaign. The recovery from that injury leaked into last season, but he has yet to miss an outing in 2013-14.

So give the kid some time, Adelman has insisted all season.

"I think he's on the right track," Adelman said. "It's something that he has to deal with that people are gonna keep talking about it, but every player in this league comes in with some wart, and they need to work on it."

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