MINNEAPOLIS – Ricky Rubio does not belong on paper.
That’s where he’s been imprisoned for months, though, relegated to reports and hearsay, reduced to “good” and “healthy” and “doing well.” It’s too flat, too colorless, too cut-and-dried. Rubio is the stuff of movement and noise. He’s visceral, best experienced in a loud, adrenaline-charged dose.
The player who sat in a chair and talked about his knee was not Ricky Rubio, not really. The one who shot jumper after jumper with assistant coach Terry Porter wasn’t either. Nor was the disembodied, lilting Spanish voice that echoed through the empty Target Center as the sound engineers checked the speakers pregame on Saturday. Even the guard warming up, circling the basket, shot, shot, shot wasn’t quite him.
Ricky Rubio, the real Ricky Rubio, appeared with 1:47 remaining in the first quarter of the Timberwolves’ 114-106 win over Dallas. He jogged onto the court amid chants of “Ricky,” that devolved into, “Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!” Too quickly, before he’d even touched the ball, it seemed like a season ago, before the injury, before the rehab, before the nagging questions of will this ever be the same.
Saturday, it was time to find out, to put worry aside or to embrace it in earnest. The Timberwolves sent Rubio out there, and basketball waited to see if it was getting the player it was craving, the player it had hung its hopes on for nigh on nine months.
It’s Saturday night at the Target Center, and there’s some trepidation woven in with the cheers. There’s anxiety in the anxiousness, guarded curiosity in the waiting.
And then Ricky Rubio runs onto the court, plays like he’s always played and reminds us all that we are fickle, fickle humans.
Rubio scores 8 points and dishes 9 assists in just 18 minutes, filling a stat sheet that cannot contain him. Stat sheet, his game scoffs, I’m bigger than that. He passes the ball behind his own back, through his legs, a millimeter away from grazing Elton Brand’s leg, to Greg Stiemsma, who takes it up and scores. He lobs the ball to Derrick Williams for an alley-oop. He jets a no-look pass to Andrei Kirilenko. He feeds the ball to J.J. Barea for a three.
Rick Adelman told him pregame he didn’t have to do everything, and then he made everything happen. “But that’s Ricky,” Adelman said with a laugh and a shrug postgame. That’s Ricky, who transformed the coach’s talk into something of a caustic comedy routine. That’s Ricky, who sets the locker room a-twitter and makes normally stoic teammates effusive. That’s Ricky, who sits in his folding chair and tells us all that his teammates gave him the gift of a win.
“I can’t say with words,” Rubio said. “It was amazing.”
To watch Rubio is to come dangerously close to a pulled neck muscle. Twitch to one side, to the other, up, down, desperately seeking Ricky. You never want to let him or the ball out of your sight, worried that to do so would be to miss something. To miss something big, something highlight-worthy, something you might want to share with your parents, your friends, with anyone who will listen, really. With Rubio, time is measured in split seconds, each crucial to reconstructing what you’ve just seen, where the ball has gone that it shouldn’t have and how it got there.
He’s not perfect, but he’s contagious. He’s a bundle of possibilities, as he stands there at the top of the key, dribbling the ball at his unmistakable pace with those long, long arms.
The passes draw you in, but the magic lies in what Rubio creates around him. It spreads. No matter how much you try to focus singularly on Rubio, it’s impossible. He’s enmeshed with his teammates, and even when he wasn’t on the court, his effect lingered. The game was flat before he checked in, fans conspicuously quiet, as if waiting patiently might bring them what they wanted sooner. And when he entered, the place exploded, his teammates transformed, and it never went back.
Derrick Williams became aggressive. Players started sinking threes. Andrei Kirilenko began playing like a star. Alexey Shved gained moxie. (Rick Adelman’s words, not mine). Everyone was playing like a better version of himself, a confident, refined, easy kind of basketball that makes you hope halftime never comes.
But it did, and then the fourth quarter, too, and for a moment it was tempting to think they’d squandered the whole shebang. Dallas was up, briefly, threatening to ruin all Rubio had wrought. But then the point guard checked back in, Superman, as one fan yelled from the stands, and eventually the game was tied, 102-102 as less than a minute remained.
Rubio had the ball. He had the ball at the 3-point line, and he shot it as time ticked down. He shot it, and as it arced, arced, arced, it looked good. It looked really good. It looked like the shot that might bring down the Target Center. It looked like the perfect ending to this crazy fairytale, in which time seemed to have stopped and it was last February again, and there was no ACL and no losing tailspin.
But that’s not how the story ends. Bounce, and it was off the rim. Rebound, and it was up, tip, tip, buzzer. Overtime, and overtime meant no more Rubio. It meant that medicine overtook basketball, that the limit was breached, and that the show should have been over.
Except not with these teammates, even without Rubio, who took whatever chutzpah he left behind and made the whole thing seem like an easy win. If you think about it, that’s the better ending; the story is Ricky Rubio, but Ricky Rubio is nothing without his teammates. Without them, he’s a mediocre shooter with no one to pass to, a goofy kid lobbing balls into space and bouncing them off backboards. He’s inspiration, the kind of exemplar every coach wants.
“It’s not just because of his talent level, but who he is,” Adelman said. “Our guys have watched him work. They’ve watched him get ready for this game, and they know what type of player he is. He rubs off. He just rubs off.”
The Timberwolves won for Rubio and because of him and because they had to, really, on a night like that.
In the second quarter during a timeout, the speakers in the Target Center revved up, this time with Christmas music. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” came piping through the arena during this pause at the height of Ricky, with him in the midst of single-handedly erasing the Timberwolves’ early deficit.
The crowd caught its breath, because watching can be exhausting. People turned to Twitter, to reduce Rubio to the pithiest 140 characters they could devise. The team game planned, and the music played, and if you listened, it was perfect.
It’s the hap-happiest season of all.
It’s Ricky season in Minnesota, and yes, yes it is.