MINNEAPOLIS – Four inches and 82 pounds. That’s a fair amount of height and a hearty dose of heft, and it’s what the Timberwolves’ starting backcourt was trying to make up for against Brooklyn Wednesday.
There’s no way around it: Luke Ridnour and Ricky Rubio are small. They’re slight. Putting in J.J. Barea doesn’t help, either, except to lower the center of gravity and up the level of mayhem. Joe Johnson is tall, strong. Deron Williams is more compact, a la Barea, but tall enough not to be looked upon as a basketball munchkin. Oh, and he’s a likely All-Star.
In the Timberwolves’ 91-83 loss to the Nets, there was really no way to compensate for the mismatched guards. Minnesota tried putting Andrei Kirilenko and Mickael Gelabale on the Brooklyn backcourt at times, but that was hardly a solution, and so, perhaps out of desperation or because the whole thing was just too frustrating for anyone to think straight, Terry Porter made the most unorthodox of choices.
Rubio, perched at the scorer’s table for more than a minute, was poised to enter the game late in the fourth quarter. Then Barea hit a 3-point jumper with 2:37 remaining, putting the Timberwolves within five, and the Nets called a timeout. Rubio had four of his 28 allotted minutes remaining, and it was his time, the end of the game, the moments when he itches and sweats and beats himself up if he’s left on the bench. But the timeout ended, Rubio sat and the game was Barea’s to finish.
So yes, just to recap, Porter chose J.J. Barea over Ricky Rubio.
J.J. Barea with five fouls, for that matter, five fouls he’d accrued in less than three minutes of play in the fourth quarter as the Timberwolves went from down four to down nine. J.J. Barea who’d been worked over by C.J. Watson for the majority of the past quarter. All because he made a shot.
“At that point I just rolled with (Barea),” Porter said. “He was hot. Wasn’t anything Ricky did. It’s tough decisions in regards to personnel end of games, based on who’s hot, who’s not hot.”
The hot or not principle has been a guiding one with the Timberwolves this season. Take the Chris Johnson and Gelabale show on Saturday against the Rockets, when two 10-day contracts controlled the fourth quarter and won the game. It’s a tricky principle, though, one that’s to be used cautiously and on nights like Wednesday when things are within reach until late and then blown – well, it can come back to bite you.
Games like Wednesday’s are fragile. They require the gentlest of treatment in the final minutes, when one wrong twitch means the thing is blown. Sure, Barea’s stat line on the night looked better – eight assists to Rubio’s six, 14 points to his five – but there’s something less quantifiable about the final minutes of a game, where certain loyalties tend to come out, for better or for worse. You’d assume Rubio would have earned those loyalties, but maybe not. Maybe he hasn’t proved enough in his comeback, or his shot is still too shaky, his jumps too grounded. Maybe hot overrules everything, as well.
J.J. Barea is a bull in a china shop, and sometimes you win by recklessly shattering everything around you, but all too often it ruins the thing. We’ll never know if putting Rubio in for those final two minutes and change would have led to a different outcome, but Porter, in making his choice, guaranteed that everyone would wonder.
He also guaranteed that he’d have one unhappy point guard on his hands. No one was pleased after the loss, but Rubio took demoralized to a different level. His thoughts on the matter went something like this:
“I don’t know.” (General sentiment.)
“Yeah.” (He felt fine.)
“Yeah. But it is what it is.” (It upset him, but, well, there’s nothing much to add.)
“TP thought that it was, I mean, he preferred to play the players who were playing, and I don’t know what to say.”
Rubio didn’t know what to say, but he also knew who he’d talk to. He planned to talk to Porter, he said, to find out his coach’s reasoning. But this wasn’t the angry, irrational superstar. God forbid Ricky Rubio ever becomes that. Instead, it was the dejected and frustrated player working his way back from injury, the one who thought he’d earned a spot on the court in close games, the one who was wondering if and why he hadn’t.
“I didn’t like it, but I think he thinks what’s best for the team, so I want to know what happened, and I’m going to talk,” Rubio said.
It’s impossible to accuse Barea of doing anything less than what he thought was best for his team, but he has a way of controlling games almost unconsciously, even on nights when his play isn’t at the level where it should be guiding anything. On Wednesday, the refs weren’t on his side, and neither was momentum or his size (although that never is). But he had Porter’s confidence, for better or worse, and he ran with it.
“I was trying to do everything,” Barea said. “It’s a tough game for us. We tried everything. The coaches tried everything.”
Sometimes, though, everything isn’t necessarily the right approach.