Full-Court Press: Return hopes and headaches

It won’t always be like that, the freaky-fun show in Minnesota on Saturday night, when Ricky Rubio returned to the Timberwolves’ lineup as if he hadn’t missed a day and the Timberwolves defeated the Mavericks, 114-106. The only vestige of the point guard’s knee injury that remained was his minutes limit. Even so, with 8 points and 9 assists in 18 minutes, Rubio stole the show and made the Timberwolves look better than they had all season.

But he is the exception, not the rule. Integrating players on their way back from injury isn’t always so easy. In fact, it’s usually downright difficult, especially when a team is winning or exceeding expectations. Even if a player has been a major cog in his team’s attack, it’s hard. In fact, that can make it harder. To bring someone back into a lineup that’s clicking is to tell someone else, someone who may have gotten the opportunity of his career and made the most of it, to sit. It’s to tweak and wonder if to tweak is to taint.

Rubio is the first big-name player to return from a major injury (read: one that kept him out for a month or more) this season, but he won’t be the last. There will be, in no particular order, Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Derrick Rose in Chicago, Amar’e Stoudemire in New York, Andrew Bynum in Philadelphia, Steve Nash in Los Angeles, Andrew Bogut in Golden State, Eric Gordon in New Orleans. And with the exception of Gordon, a lot will be riding on those players in terms of keeping their teams on track or righting the ship in the face of mammoth expectations. There will be a ripple effect, with players like the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, the 76ers’ Lavoy Allen, the Warriors’ Festus Ezeli and more seeing their minutes and roles altered in one way or another.

For Nash, the task will be to save the floundering Lakers. For Nowitzki, Rose and Bynum, it will be to push their teams up from the bubble. For Bogut, it will be to not ruin the magic the Warriors have wrought, as it will be for Stoudemire with the Knicks. None of it will be easy, not for the likes of Stoudemire and Bogut, and definitely not for Nash.

It’s undoubtedly worse to lose a player and collapse. The Timberwolves saw that last year with Rubio. They’ll swear to it. But to perform well and reintegrate  sure, it’s the kind of problem Mike D’Antoni likely envies Rick Adelman and Mark Jackson, but it’s still the stuff of stressful meetings and intricate strategy. It’s balancing egos and calibrating new lineups, worrying over questions that won’t be answered until those players finally lace up their sneakers and take the court.

For Minnesota, the earliest indication is that rewards will come. For everyone else, commence the waiting, the worrying, the strategizing. And, of course, the hoping that it all pays off.

Kyrie, the masked man

On Saturday, Kyrie Irving joined the ranks of masked Cavaliers  Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller are also sporting similar shields  after fracturing his left upper jaw the night before, and in doing so, he played well enough to obscure the oddity of so many masks on a basketball court at once.

Irving went 15-of-25 from the field for a career-high 41 points as the Cavs just barely lost to the Knicks, 103-102. The point guard also dished out five assists and logged five rebounds, pushing his PER to 21.2, fifth-best among point guards in the league. Cleveland may still be among the league’s worst, but this is hardly the post-LeBron Cleveland. The Cavs this season have had their moments of excitement  there were plenty Saturday and even more Tuesday when they beat the Lakers in Irving’s comeback from a broken hand  and with Irving, there’s a plenty-bright future to cheer for.

The hug

On Friday, as time ran out in the Rockets’ 101-89 win over the Celtics, Boston’s Kevin Garnett approached his former coach and general manager, Kevin McHale, now the Rockets coach. It was just hours after the tragedy in Connecticut and mere weeks since McHale’s daughter, Sasha, passed away from lupus, and there was really no day when basketball could have seemed more irrelevant.

The two men, visibly older than when they were the man behind and the face of the NBA’s best team in Minnesota in 2004, hugged. They hugged for seconds, longer than just any regular hug. There were tears, broadcast to the entire world, and when they pulled apart, you couldn’t argue against the notion that sports matter, at least a little bit, if they can create relationships like those and moments like that.

Trending up

The Warriors, who went 3-1 this week, including wins in Miami and Atlanta, ending a seven-game road trip with a 6-1 record. It was the first time in franchise history the team won six games on a trip, and its upset of the Heat was the statement win the team needed. We’re for real, it announced, and it’s hard to doubt that the Warriors, at 16-8, aren’t a legitimate playoff threat.

Trending down

The Bobcats, who are on an 11-game losing streak after starting the season 7-5. At the beginning of this free-fall, the Bobcats were third in the Southeast Division and the fifth-best team in the East. Their point differential was still unimpressive, -2.4, maybe the first hint of their eventual undoing, but it hardly portended their -7.9 differential and fifth-worst record in the East.

Best of the week

Team: The Thunder, who have stretched their winning streak to 10 games and now hold the league’s best record, 19-4, along with its best true shooting percentage (59.6). Their offensive rating, 114.0, is the best in the league, as is their points per game average, 105.7. And to top it all off, Kevin Durant’s thoughtful tribute to the Newtown, Conn. victims on his sneaker Friday  how could they not be the best of the week?

Player: Carmelo Anthony, who’s led the Knicks to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference on 27.9 points per game (second-best in the NBA) and a PER of 26.13, worse only than those of LeBron James and Durant. Even with his sprained ankle, it’s hard not to applaud Anthony this week; he scored 30 points in 22 minutes against the Lakers Thursday.

Pass: Ricky Rubio’s behind his own back, through his own legs dish to Greg Stiemsma for an easy layup in the second quarter of the point guard’s season debut Saturday. Said Rick Adelman: “I told him you don’t have to do everything the first game. You can save things for later. He was making everything happen.”

Worst of the week

Team: The Mavericks, who finished their latest road trip 0-3 and were blown out by Toronto on Friday, 95-74. They made an attempt to bounce back Saturday in Minnesota but failed in overtime for the second time in four days, and at 11-13 with upcoming games against the Heat and Grizzlies, Dallas might be digging itself something of a hole.

Player: Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings, whose shooting has fallen into quite the slump. He went 16-of-54 (29.6 percent) from the field this week, including 5-of-23 from three, and he was especially ineffective, with a plus-minus of -17, in the Bucks’ 111-85 blowout at the hands of the Clippers on Saturday.

Comments: Dallas’ O.J. Mayo’s words after getting hit in the groin by Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins in the Mavericks’ 119-96 win over the Kings on Monday. Granted, Cousins had no business hitting Mayo where he did and when he did, but to bring up Cousins’ supposed “mental issues” was out of line for Mayo. He’d have been better off taking the high road.

Telling stats of the week

0-of-20: The Trail Blazers set an NBA record Monday for the most 3-pointers attempted without a make. Sasha Pavlovic, Luke Babbitt and Damian Lillard each attempted five. Oh, and Portland still beat Toronto, 92-74.

826 games: That’s how long it took for San Antonio’s Tony Parker to log his first triple-double, which he did on Monday against Houston, logging 27 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists. Only three other players had their first triple-double more than 800 games into their careers: Karl Malone (860 games), Patrick Ewing (834) and Cedric Maxwell (824).

3-11: The Lakers’ record when Kobe Bryant scores 30-plus points this season. Last season, they went 17-7 when he scored that much.

What we heard

“Oh man, I want it to go forever, man. There’s going to come a point in time where it’s not going to be growing, so I might as well enjoy it while I have it.”

 — 76ers’ center Andrew Bynum on his ever-changing, attention-getting hair.

“I don’t ever have a problem with anyone getting paid. If there’s one other guy to pay on this team, it’s Ricky Rubio.”

 — The Timberwolves’ Kevin Love on Wednesday, clarifying a Yahoo! Sports story in which he aired his grievances with the team. Love dispelled any notion of a rivalry with Rubio based on Love’s failure to get a max deal, though he stuck by his other complaints.

“Right now, I wish we had the Washington Generals on our schedule.”

 — Kobe Bryant, referring to the Harlem Globetrotters’ hapless opponents, after the Lakers’ 116-107 loss to the Knicks Thursday, which dropped the team to 9-14.

What’s ahead

San Antonio at Oklahoma City, Monday, 8 p.m. ET: This is the second matchup between the Thunder and Spurs this season after the two faced off on Nov. 1, when the Spurs won, 86-84. With the Lakers out of the picture, they’re indisputably the two best teams in the West, and the Thunder are on a 10-game winning streak. This one promises to be fun.

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