MINNEAPOLIS – Ricky Rubio dove. Ricky Rubio dove and drew a foul with less than two minutes left in regulation, and the Target Center held its breath.
It’s been nine months since the Minnesota Timberwolves point guard fell, nine months since he tore his ACL, and one would prefer he not dive — not yet. One would prefer it, but that’s not his game. Not even close. The chance was there, so Rubio went for it, for the ball and for anything that would edge his team closer to the win, drawing the foul that knocked out Derek Fisher and turning the tide of the game in the process.
And Ricky Rubio, he of eight points, nine assists, four rebounds and three steals in 18 minutes, would like the world to know: He is not fragile.
He’s strong enough to dive, strong enough to spark his team to its 114-106 overtime win, strong enough for anything, it seemed, Saturday night against the Mavericks.
“The knee, I feel great,” he said after the game. “Like I told everyone, I’m only going to come back when my knee feels 100 percent.”
With Kevin Love out with flu-like symptoms, the spotlight was all Rubio’s, not that it wouldn’t have been otherwise. It had been 280 days, 16 wins, 25 losses, three trades, seven signings and too many injuries ago even to count. It had been worse than the Timberwolves expected, and then better, and then finally, Rubio was back.
He was back with a vengeance, without the rust that would seem a given after such a long absence. He was dishing the ball as always, passes through his own legs, behind his back, monstrous alley-oops. He was playing Rickyball within seconds of taking the court, warranting every last decibel of the buzzing arena.
Rubio had a minutes limit, yes; 16 to 18, Adelman said pregame. He was pulled in the fourth quarter when he reached 16, then reinserted to round out regulation for another two, though the trainers told Adelman he was good for four. There was no way he wasn’t going back in, the coach said, not if they needed him, his minutes limit suddenly the tiniest bit negotiable under pressure. And they needed him.
They needed him for the assists and the ball movement, and they came so close to getting the game-winning shot on top of it. As time expired, the score tied at 102, Rubio had the ball at the three-point line, and his jumper was so close to good. It was enough for two rebounds, two failed tips, the ball still spiking into the air as the clock expired.
And that was it for Rubio. Eighteen minutes was enough, and from there, his team won it. The Timberwolves won it for their point guard, after the spark he’d given them. They won it riding high on whatever magic he leaves there, sprinkled on the court.
“I told him you don’t have to do everything the first game,” Adelman said. “You can save things for later. He was making everything happen.”
Like that pass in the second quarter, behind his own back and between his own legs, brushing Elton Brand and into the hands of Greg Stiemsma — that was maybe something Rubio could have saved. But Adelman knows the point guard’s tricks, and he couldn’t have been surprised.
“I think he might have been able to just pass that easily,” he said. “But that’s Ricky.”
It’s why they love him, the Target Center crowd. It’s why they cheer louder, not just for him, but when he’s in uniform. Rubio lays the foundation, and he allows everything — his teammates, the fans, even the coaching staff — to play off of it. And oh, does he love what he’s built.
“I can’t say with words,” Rubio said. “It was amazing.”
“It’s amazing. They give me a great gift, a ‘W’ in overtime. I think we’re going to do big things with this team this year.”