MINNEAPOLIS – Saturday night, Ricky Rubio decided to score.
And score, and score. To the tune of 23 points, a career high.
Ricky Rubio decided to score, and so Luke Ridnour adjusted, facilitating rather than scoring himself and picking up the slack where it was left. So he continued to adjust, just as he’s been doing since Dec. 15, the day the Spanish point guard made his heralded post-ACL debut.
Really, though, that December night marked nothing new; Ridnour has been adjusting for far longer, ever since those cheers for Ricky, Ricky, Ricky got so stifling last January and the rookie was eventually inserted into the Timberwolves’ starting lineup.
Many assumed the move would be at the expense of Ridnour’s starting job. Many were wrong. The dawn of the Rubio era did not relegate Ridnour to the bench. It gave him an even tougher task, shoving him not out of the starting lineup, but rather into a spot that didn’t quite fit
Rick Adelman has never started a player of Ridnour’s size at shooting guard before, he says, not this consistently over so long a period of time. That’s a 21-year coaching career we’re talking, with dozens of shooting guards all bigger and stronger, dozens who look the part far better than the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Ridnour. At least, those are his measurements on paper, measurements that in the NBA are computed and transmuted. The too-short become taller, the too-tall become shorter, and then there’s way-too-short Luke Ridnour, playing shooting guard beside a five-pounds-heavier, two-inches-taller point guard.
There he is, guarding over a five-day span everyone from Jodie Meeks to Russell Westbrook to Jerryd Bayless to Courtney Lee, grateful for Metta World Peace’s injury that shifted Kobe Bryant over to be someone else’s responsibility. They’re all bigger, all stronger, all playing their natural position. And Ridnour pokes at them. He pesters. He throws his weight as if he truly believes he’s got an extra 40 pounds. He fouls, sometimes, by the sheer flailing of his motion, and sometimes he’s left splat on the floor. Other times he’s run over.
But never, ever, does he complain. Not ever. Not at his locker before games, where he’ll tell you he doesn’t have time to talk and then make time. Not after, when he’s getting dressed or passing his three young sons around the locker room, upset after losses and thanking God after wins. Not at practice, not at shootaround, not to his teammates, not to his coaches. There’s not a peep.
“We’re just going to keep fighting, no matter who’s out there and who’s not,” he said March 12 after a particularly surprising win over the Spurs. “We’re just going to keep fighting away. It’s about just playing the game you love and trying to make the best of it.”
If Ridnour is hurting, you’ll never know it. If he’s resentful of the position he’s put in, he’ll never show it. That’s just not how he chooses to function.
“I think he’s a little bit underrated,” Andrei Kirilenko said. “Everybody thinks, hey, he’s small. But he can really hold his ground. I think it’s very unique for guys of his size to be able to guard guys who are one head taller than them.”
Let’s start with Wednesday. Wednesday is a good day for Ridnour. It’s game no. 69 this season for the guard, and he’s played in all of them this year, a fact that when uttered will cause Adelman to smile and then grimace and then, I’d assume, retreat into the locker room and knock on wood, say a novena, or perform some other ritualistic plea.
On Wednesday, the Lakers announce that Meeks will start alongside Bryant in place of World Peace. That shift sends Bryant to Kirilenko and the smaller and weaker Meeks to Ridnour. It’s still a mismatch, of course, but a better one, and Ridnour scores 11 points, holding Meeks to five.
Two nights later, though, it’s Russell Westbrook, the Thunder’s All-Star guard, with a hint of Thabo Sefolosha to boot. Another night, another rotation of larger opponents, more moments of Ridnour bouncing around the court like a pinball at times, ping-ping-pinging between Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka on defense, throwing himself wherever he needs to be, scoring 11 points in the process of keeping Westbrook’s and Sefolosha’s points down as best he can.
“He tries to front them,” Adelman said. “He tries to body them. It’s just constant. It’s got to be wearing on him. It’s amazing he’s been able to play every game. He just keeps going out every day.”
Then the next night, it’s Tony Allen, then Bayless, some Mike Conley and a bit of Quincy Pondexter. (To gain some perspective, Pondexter has about five inches and 50 pounds on Ridnour.) There’s one point when, in the process of guarding Pondexter, it looks like Ridnour is going to jump on his back for a piggyback.
But he goes and goes, doggedly shadowing Allen, his primary target. Allen reciprocates, at one point too hard, bumping into Ridnour with enough force to draw an offensive foul. The Grizzlies shooting guard looks at the refs with a look of patented TA incredulity and claims it was an accident. And maybe it was. But that’s Ridnour’s advantage: he’s little, he looks fragile by comparison, and sometimes guys don’t even see him.
The matchup Monday is slightly easier. It’s Courtney Lee, a reserve for the Celtics, and maybe Ridnour’s offense isn’t there, but neither is his opponent’s. A game after scoring just seven against Memphis, he’s good for only two. Defense across the board is porous, and size is still a concern, but the Timberwolves get the second win of the homestand and Ridnour gets a healthy dose of rest, playing just 20 minutes.
And so it ends, what looks on paper like the streak from hell until you realize that this is what Ridnour does every single game, even when his back is hurting and he’s feeling every ounce of his size and 32 years.
Those 28 minutes on the bench Monday were a product of matchups and the game, perhaps a chance to give Ridnour some rest, but probably not.
“I keep an eye on him, but he’s in great shape,” Adelman said before the game. “I think he’s okay. … I don’t worry about Luke.”
No one does. He’s not the kind of player a coach frets over, not when there are too many others tending toward temper and fragility. Adelman may worry about the situation – the team needs a legitimate shooting guard in order to contend, no question, he says – but not about the fix. The fact that there is a fix at this point, and one so compliant and flexible, is a minor miracle.
And so one night Rubio scores, and Ridnour picks up the dishing. Another night, the scoring is left to him, the assisting to Rubio, and the natural roles return. It works as well as it can, which is well enough, apparently, for a losing and formerly depleted team to string together some wins here at the end of the season.
“That’s the benefit of this team,” Dante Cunningham said. “We have a lot of point guards that understand the game and that can move the ball, and they can hit shots. If one’s passing, the other one’s shooting, and vice versa.”
On Monday, at the outset of the third quarter, Rubio steals the ball from Avery Bradley near the Celtics’ basket. He cuts from one side of the court to the other, and then facing the wrong direction, somehow launches the ball over his head, a pass Kirilenko later describes as “tricky-Ricky.” From anyone else, it looks like a desperation heave. From Rubio, it’s still madness, but likely of the calculated variety.
Because even though said heave goes halfway down the court, Ridnour is there, frantically pulling up beside it before it trickles out of bounds. He saves it, the most demented of passes, and feeds it to his teammates on offense, and that’s that. The undersized, overworked and resolute guard records no assist on the play, no score, no mark on the stat sheet.
But, as always, there he is. Right where he should be, which also, inexplicably, is right where he should not.