MINNEAPOLIS – They clustered around the tunnel, as they always do, above, around, leaning over. Thursday night was not a night for congratulations, not from those fans zealous enough for the leaning-over-the-railing sendoff. A 90-77 loss, shooting 35.7 percent when the Clippers looked like they were giving the game away – that’s hardly the stuff of cheers and high-fives, and so just a few fans lingered and offered thin words of encouragement.
As Ricky Rubio trudged off the court, he clutched his baby blue towel to his mouth, giving the sense that he was about to vomit. He wasn’t, of course – Rubio is actually one of the healthy ones – but there was no more fitting image for that mess of a game.
“You have the touch,” one fan yelled as Rubio passed, perhaps hoping to encourage the point guard after a 2-of-9 shooting night. A chorus of“it’s OK”rained down, too, directed at the players perhaps as much at the faithful remaining in the arena. And Rubio wanted none of it. Not Thursday, not after his first start of the season, on the night he’s been anticipating for months that was ruined by injuries and energy and downright, listless lifelessness.
So many things should have stolen the spotlight from Rubio on Thursday. He had six assists, sure, and four points, but he was on the whole pretty easy to overlook. Luke Ridnour’s 21 points, for one, were reason enough to overlook the other guard. Or Nikola Pekovic’s quad contusion or Alexey Shved’s sprained left ankle. (Both will be evaluated Friday.) And in the moment, everyone did. That is, at least, until Rubio sat down at his locker and opened a vein.
“It’s tough,” Rubio said after the game. “I mean, I’m not going to hide. It’s tough when you’re playing, and there’s no more bodies over there. You have to remain doing new things every single game, and we can’t get the rhythm. But that’s no excuse. We are professionals. I think that players that are healthy have to step up and start doing a better job.”
We are professionals. We can’t make excuses. We have to do better. Thursday’s game brought forth many harsh realities, not only from Rubio. Ridnour, who’s remained staunch in his “we just have to keep fighting” mantra, said he’s never seen so many injuries like with the Timberwolves, who, when Lazar Hayward’s 10-day contract expires at the end of Thursday, will have seven healthy players. Derrick Williams, too, was not about to mince words. “Everything’s going wrong with us right now,” he said, describing his team’s play as “terrible” more than once.
But no one was as raw as Rubio. Others talked around the problems and talked through them, while Rubio grabbed them by the you-know-what and ripped them to shreds with his words. He bit his lip and paused, his mind anywhere but in that quiet locker room in the thick of a five-game losing streak. His voice rose. There was none of the characteristic Ricky sighing and laughing and smiling that too easily makes you forget that this team is in a whole muck of trouble. For the first time in his NBA tenure, Rubio was as ferocious off the court as on it.
He was resolute. He wasn’t pointing fingers or pushing off blame, and he levied the criticism as much at himself as at the situation in general. But where for other guys it’s easy to laugh a bit about that empty bench and wonder wide-eyed about how on Earth so many players wound up injured, Rubio can’t see any silver linings. He sees black and white, whine or step up.
“We have two ways to do it,” Rubio said of dealing with the situation. “One (is) complaining, looking like we’re playing bad because of injuries and all that stuff. I don’t think that’s the way. The way, it’s (to) be a man.”
With Rubio’s start, along with Williams’, another potential solution was rendered null. Returning from the team’s four-game southern road trip, chatter began about shaking up the starting lineup. Rubio appeared in a white starter’s jersey at shootaround, and there was chatter that Williams might switch over, too. No confirmation, though, just whispers, and with the whispers brought the buildup. That’s what they need, new faces, fresh feet, different pacing, a new approach.
Well, yes, but more than just Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams could bring, at least on Thursday, and likely in the future, too. That’s the tough thing about this: Rubio is clamoring for more, more, more, and he’s earning it, but he’s still not back, not 100 percent, and certainly in no position to carry this shell of a team on his shoulders.
The magic of Ricky is dissipating, and in its place, there’s an angry point guard unaccustomed to this kind of discombobulated nightmare. He was only a spectator last season for the meltdown, and he was also the piece that made it all fall apart, they all said. Now he’s in the middle of what’s looking to be another slide, and he has no interest whatsoever in the status quo.
“We have to win,” Rubio said. “That’s why we are here, and to have fun. I don’t think we are having fun, and we’re going to change that.”
Other players have said they have to keep fighting, that they have to figure things out. Still others have nudged blame towards pacing, towards referees, towards injuries. Rubio isn’t nudging anything anywhere. He’s shoving it, full-on, shoving it back in his face and his teammates.
We’re going to change that. It sounds abstract. It sounds desperate. It sounds vague. And, well, it is, especially when the team can’t shoot, can’t stay healthy, can’t string together two halfway-decent quarters. But when Rubio says it, when he looks at you like that, like basketball has been drained of its enjoyment for him, well, you kind of can’t help but believe him just a tiny bit.