Timberwolves’ Rubio: ‘The future starts right now’

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio (right) hugs guard Andrew Wiggins (center) as they approach Zach LaVine after making a basket in the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Target Center. The Timberwolves won 111-109.

Brad Rempel/Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — It’d be easy for Ricky Rubio to brood over what might’ve been.

The Timberwolves point guard came back this season with a renewed purpose. Shortly after that, he received a renewed contract. But for the third time in his four NBA seasons, he missed significant time with an injury and watched in anguish as the team he’s taken hold of sauntered to the Western Conference’s worst record.

The rest of another lost season in Wolvesdom, though, is about what will be.

"It’s sad that we had so many injuries this season, because I think we could’ve done better, but nobody wants to cry here," said Rubio, who missed 42 games with a severe ankle sprain earlier this season. "We can’t look at our record, because if we look at our record right now, we wouldn’t be playing for anything. But actually, we are. We’re playing for the future, for next year. The future starts right now."

And what is, Rubio and the rest of Minnesota learned in Friday night’s 111-109 home win against Phoenix, isn’t all rotten.

The NBA’s worst defensive team came up with two huge stops in the final seconds and a sizable portion of them in the fourth quarter, none bigger than Rubio’s straight-up defense to force a missed Eric Bledsoe layup. Then Wolves’ 19-year-old rookie phenom Andrew Wiggins made the night’s biggest offensive play when he spun toward the basket and finished to make it 110-107 with 17.6 seconds left.

"Rick told me exactly what to do," said Wiggins, who had his 17th 20-point game of the season and last as a teenager. "He made it easy on me."

Timberwolves 111, Suns 109

Said Rubio, who finished with 10 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds: "I know the game.  . . . He’s been in this league for (part of) a year already, but he’s got to learn. He listened, and that’s great. I try to get him easy looks, and if he runs, he plays with energy, he going to get a lot of buckets, and that means a lot of assists for me."

Rubio was up to his usual tricks. So was Kevin Martin. Video clips of recently-reacquired Kevin Garnett got 14,077 fans to cheer their approval of Thursday’s trade-deadline deal, but a fourth quarter that saw 10 lead changes and eight ties was what had them on their feet.

They’re all moments, blips that neglect the fact Minnesota is 12-42 and on a collision course with the top of the draft lottery — familiar territory in these parts.

But they’re early, faint images of vindication for coach and president Flip Saunders’ ultimate vision for this rebuilding franchise.

"It’s an evaluation period for some of these guys and where they’re at," Saunders said of the season’s remaining weeks, "but it’s also an evaluation period on what they’re going to have to work on when the season ends and they start getting ready for next year, the things that they have to work on to become a solidified, rotation-type player within the team."

It starts with Rubio and Wiggins. The two were on the same page Friday night in the Wolves’ first contest in nine days, thanks to a longer All-Star break. Wiggins attacked the rim with vigor, Rubio set him up frequently, finishing with 12 assists, and both players contributed to a team defensive effort rarely seen when Rubio, Martin and Nikola Pekovic all were out with injuries from mid-November till after the New Year.

The team retained Martin past the trade deadline, and he rewarded it with 28 points. Until the young core of Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Anthony Bennett becomes more mature, Martin’s job is to fill in whatever scoring gaps exist.

And then there’s Garnett, who will make his second Wolves debut Wednesday after waiving a no-trade clause in his contract and coming "home," as Saunders put it, from Brooklyn. The first of two lame-duck contests while the club awaits Garnett’s return featured a couple rousing video-board mentions of the long-departed icon. He won’t make the team’s trip to Chicago on Monday but is expected to be in uniform Wednesday when the Wolves host the Wizards.

Technically, Minnesota is 1-0 since dealing for the best player in club history who led them to their only postseason appearances.

"The KG effect," Rubio joked.

Once the reunion party is over, the Wolves will need him — and for more than the ballyhooed influence he’ll have on the youngsters. With Thaddeus Young dealt for Garnett, Anthony Bennett started at power forward Friday night but left late in the first quarter with a lower right leg contusion after getting tangled up with Markieff Morris — who had a game-high 31 points for the trade-depleted Suns (29-26). Jeff Hornacek’s club dressed just 10 players while they await the spoils of the Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Brandon Knight trades made Thursday.

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Adreian Payne, obtained last week from Atlanta, had more fouls — five — than rebounds — four — in his 13 minute, 30-second debut. Dieng played most of his minutes at the four, finishing with 15 points and 12 boards for his 14th double-double of the season.

X-rays on Bennett’s leg turned up negative Friday night, but he’ll be further evaluated Saturday.

Either way, there are 28 games left for Minnesota to establish an effective mix centered on Rubio’s playmaking, Wiggins’ finishing and defense and, now, Garnett’s leadership. Then comes decision time: who goes, who stays, and who plays the most integral roles in Year 2 of the post-Kevin-Love renovation.

"I’m curious like everybody else, because what happens is that rolls change constantly," Saunders said. "I have an idea of how I want it to work; I’m curious to see if it’s going to work that way or not."

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