Wolves’ odd couple serves backcourt well

MINNEAPOLIS – You don’t notice Luke Ridnour. He doesn’t want you to, for one thing, and it works. It works because he blends in. It works because there’s Ricky Rubio to distract you, his injury early this season and his mere existence now that he’s back.

It works because Ridnour doesn’t care who pays attention to him or writes about him or sings his praises. He seems absolutely fine with Rubio unwittingly eating up every ounce of the attention and holding court at the locker directly across from his. The dichotomy is striking: Ridnour, quiet and pale, Rubio, dark and chatty, and in the locker room, they could hardly be more different. On the court, too, that holds. Ridnour can be flashy, but Rubio is flashy, in his nature, at his core. Rubio can’t shoot worth a lick this season, and Ridnour’s shot is there to the point that his shooting percentage is the best of any Timberwolves’ backcourt player.

What off the court makes Rubio’s locker the hottest real estate in the room and Ridnour’s worth only a quick stop makes everything work on it. On the court, the two complement each other, rather than contrast, and when they’re out there together, each can revert more to his natural tendencies, for Ridnour to shoot and for Rubio to dish.

Luke Ridnour isn’t a less-impressive knockoff of Ricky Rubio. He’s the perfect complement, the yin to Rubio’s yang, the solidity that gives a footing to the flash. And now, on top of all that, the quiet veteran is charged with staying steady and consistent while the younger star battles ups and downs and all the requisite obstacles of his return, all without faltering even slightly or garnering little more than a shred of notice. It’s a heavy task, especially with so many other injuries plaguing the team, but at least somewhat doable.

Since Rubio’s return, the Timberwolves haven’t seen a huge statistical bump in terms of assists per game; before he was back, they averaged 21.4, and in games he’s played since, it’s 22.3. But Rubio is still easing in, of course, and his assists, 5.0 per game right now, aren’t going to have the immediate impact everyone expected. And despite Ridnour’s shooting struggles, he’s achieved a higher volume of shots since his backcourt partner returned. Before Dec. 15, Ridnour attempted an average of 9.6 shots per game, and since then, he’s been good for 11.4. Maybe the accuracy isn’t there, but with this team, the more shots, the better, the bigger chance there is that somehow they’ll start falling.

The numbers don’t show a large spike in terms of the Rubio-Ridnour effect, but consider the sample size. In 14 games this season, the two have played just 134 minutes together, and only recently has the sample size gained any weight. In the 10 games in which Rubio came off the bench, the two averaged just 3.7 minutes on the court together, with substitution patterns often dictating each subbing in for the other. Only since Rubio’s first start, Jan. 17 against the Clippers, have the two accrued any meaningful time together; in those four games, they’ve averaged 24.4 minutes sharing the court.

In that smaller sample size, though, a difference is palpable, and that’s not surprising, because these past four games are the only time Rubio and Ridnour have been able to build any consistent chemistry. Over those games, Ridnour is good for 15.5 points per game on 44.8 percent shooting, averaging 14.5 field goal attempts. Rubio, too, is logging more assists, 6.0 per game, even though his minutes haven’t increased appreciably with his move into the starting five.

Both players enjoy the change. Both prefer playing with each other. Each explains it in his own way, Ridnour in his plain terms – “It’s fun to play with Ricky when you get out and just try to make things happen.” – and Rubio in his more effervescent: “I love playing with Luke. All I can say is he’s a great player. I can find him for open shots, and he hits those shots. I love playing with him. He’s a smart player. He’s been in the league for a long time, and he did a great job today. I think he’s the only one who really scored and helped the team.”

Now that the two are on the court together, now that Rubio’s minutes are up to 26-28 per game, now the expectations begin. Now it’s been more than a month since the big comeback, and so why isn’t Rubio up to numbers like last season, 10.6 points and 8.2 assists per game? Why isn’t he doing what Adrian Peterson did? They had the same injury, after all. (Faulty reasoning, that.) Now, it’s kosher to ask Terry Porter how close to being back he thinks the point guard is, to start poking around and looking for timelines and ceilings and some sort of notion of when the real Ricky will be back. They’re hasty questions, and they warrant the vaguest of answers.

“I think, I mean, he’s, it’s hard to determine,” Porter said in lieu of providing a percentage to quantify Rubio’s recovery progress. “If you’re trying to say, we don’t know where he’s going to be. That hasn’t been answered. He’s working through this, still.”

Rubio is willing to elaborate a bit further on the subject, talking about how tough it is to jump, how his legs aren’t in his shot, how he’s still thinking about his knee. He knows he has a ways to go, that his first electric game was more a hint of what’s to come in a few months than an indicator of the status quo, and he’s dealing with it.

“The league is not going to stop because I’m coming back … (or) give me two weeks without a game to practice, trying to get healthy,” Rubio said. “That’s something that comes with the games, and I’m trying to get out of my mind. But it’s hard sometimes.”

It’s easier, though, when you have a veteran like Ridnour on the court with you. It’s easier when the team’s cadre of guards – down to three right now, which makes the proposition harder – can adjust and fit to the needs of easing in a focal player. It seems natural after the chemistry that Ridnour and Rubio built last season to see them starting together, finally, and if there’s someone best to ease Rubio into this latest step back, it’s the veteran guard.

“Luke has been great for us,” Porter said. “You’re talking about just a consistent pro. … We’ve had a lot of different guys having to step up and be consistent and help us because it’s hard to try to figure it out when you start to do the minute thing, play (Rubio) and not play him. It’s difficult at times. It makes it tough for other guys.”

Last season, Rubio didn’t make his first start until 10 games in. But beginning almost instantly, fans at the Target Center were begging for Rubio, cheering for him to enter games, and eventually to line up to begin them. At that point, Wes Johnson was starting at shooting guard, and a simplistic view of the thing would have indicated that Rubio would take Ridnour’s spot at point. This, just weeks after the team signed Barea and spurred speculation that Ridnour would be dealt. It wasn’t a great stretch for the veteran, you’d think, except that he never lost his lineup spot, thanks to a Michael Beasley injury and Johnson moving to small forward. He was simply moved over, told to shoot more, and let loose alongside Rubio.

Maybe it was an unorthodox choice, to go that small, and sometimes it is too small. But now, much of the time, it looks natural. As Rubio regains his rhythm, it should only get better, and Ridnour will be there, and be consistent, same as always.

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