Confidence makes all the difference for Rubio

MINNEAPOLIS – The Ricky Rubio caricature is a flawed one.

You know what I’m talking about, the smiling cherub perched on the bench, the sighing prince who waxes poetic about his teammates, and basketball, and anything else in his sunny domain. That Ricky Rubio, the one who sometimes feels like he’s not quite of this world, too happy, too earnest, incapable of lying or misleading or transgressing in any fashion – that’s the one.

That caricature was smushed between Andrei Kirilenko and Greg Stiemsma on the Timberwolves’ bench late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 115-86 win. He grinned. No, he beamed. He was the man of the hour. His team was up big over the Hornets, up so big that he only got 23 minutes on the court. Any more would have been unkind, piling it on, as if a nearly 30-point win wasn’t already.

But the caricature, if real, would have prevented the whole thing. The caricature ignores the other Rubio, the Rubio who was the reason this other could sit on the bench, could smile, could relax for once without the weight of six-game losing streak on his back.

Rubio, not 24 hours after criticizing the way he began Friday’s loss to the Lakers, set the tone on Saturday. It was he who established what the Timberwolves would be, scoring seven of the team’s first 18 points on three shots and a free throw. It was he who pushed the pace of the game, drove to the basket, exerted every ounce of will in his slight, 6-4 frame. It was that Ricky Rubio, that wheeling and dealing, almost predatory player, who told the Hornets just what was going to be done to them. He finished the night with nine points and seven assists despite that lessened playing time, and even as other players’ feats may have outdone his own, he was hard to forget for all the intangibles. Ricky Rubio had exerted his will.

So let him smile. Let him sheepishly blink his too-long eyelashes. Let him entrance the world. But Ricky Rubio didn’t get to where he is by being charming. He didn’t become what he is with the delicate sensibility and acute case of the vapors every time he neared the basket that he’s displayed in recent weeks. Rubio’s is a game built on confidence, on the deepest conviction that he can do anything – how else do you explain those flips and dishes and lobs? – and when he doesn’t believe that, the whole thing falls to shambles.

The Timberwolves needed Saturday’s win. Badly. They’d lost six straight, by an average margin of 7.8 points. But Rubio needed it too, perhaps more than anyone else. Rubio is accustomed to winning, to playing a certain way and being a certain thing, and he’d never at this level experienced anything like these past weeks. (Remember, he was sidelined during last spring’s epic collapse.) The Timberwolves have won this season at times, won without Kevin Love, and they knew somewhere they had it in them. But Rubio, on an individual level, is still fighting to be the player he was last season, the player he thinks he still is. He, unlike his team, has not yet had conclusive proof, and a blowout win and confident performance go a long way toward justifying his hope to return to form.

Much has been made of the point guard’s shooting struggles, and rightfully so. In his first month of play this season, he averaged 3.8 points on 22.2 percent shooting, dismal among the deplorable that was his team’s offense as a whole. The Timberwolves’ struggles only reinforced Rubio’s, and the whole thing became an ugly, parasitic relationship that left Rubio steaming at his locker and unsure how to proceed. Until recently, that is. Until recently, when over his past four games Rubio has averaged 10.3 points on 46.9 percent shooting (and 6.5 assists), numbers that, though tiny in sample size, are better, in some areas, than those of last season, when he shot just 35.7 percent from the field.

So no, Ricky Rubio is not new and improved and perfect, not yet. He’s not definitively back, just because of a good week that could net his team only one win. But he has had four straight games now of solid play, four straight games to generate hope. It’s not time yet for the grandiose predictions and long-term plans of what he can be for this franchise; after the game, all coach Rick Adelman would say of Rubio’s flashy play was “I was just glad he didn’t get hurt,” and that’s still not far from where the situation should stand, in this in-between realm where he’s still very much a work in progress.

“He’s confident,” Adelman said. “I thought he was. … He just needs to play within himself. He doesn’t have to – it’s great for the crowd sometimes, some of the plays he makes, but he just has to make good plays, not great plays, all the time.”

What was, just months ago, something considered purely in the physical – Rubio is taking jumpers, moving on to lateral movement, allowed contact – has morphed into something almost completely mental. Now, it’s a matter of the point guard getting his legs into his shot, not because he can’t physically but because he has some latent fear of it. It’s a matter of him driving to the basket, of him going with the flow, not worrying about that knee and just letting basketball happen like it isn’t something that upended his life 11 months ago. And so games like Saturday’s matter, for proof to Rubio of what he can be, just as much as they matter as another win, another step closer to recouping some of what the Timberwolves have lost in recent weeks.

Ricky Rubio probably will not be able to save the Timberwolves’ season, but hell if he isn’t going to try.

After Saturday’s game, Rubio talked at length about how much his team needed the blowout. Once the formalities were out of the way, though, he touched a bit on his own performance, the three alley-oop passes and the flashy assists. There was one play, where he passed the ball to himself behind his back and then quickly tossed a no-look pass to center Nikola Pekovic, which stood out in particular. It was one of those signature Ricky moves in which you’re not quite sure what happened, other than whoa, until you watch a replay, and so someone asked him: Was it behind the back, or was it between his legs?

Rubio paused, his face frozen in what appeared to be concentration.

“Behind the back,” he said after a few seconds. And then he laughed and raised his eyebrows.

He hadn’t needed to think about it. He knew what he’d done. Yes, increasingly so, Ricky Rubio knows exactly what he’s doing. 

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