Rubio inspires stellar effort from teammates

March 12, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS – He really is a small man to command so much of the spotlight.

An NBA court measures 4,700 square feet. Ricky Rubio measures 6-foot-4, 180 pounds soaking wet, and yet on Tuesday night, he took over every last inch of the hardwood.

On Tuesday, Minnesota's point guard darling did what he's been flirting with for weeks. He logged his first career triple-double, finishing the night with 21 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists, snaring a defensive rebound with 9:15 remaining in the game to seal the thing. The crowd roared, the clapping came to a crescendo and the game went on. It was a milestone taken in stride, as so many are, and if you ask Rubio's coach and teammates, it was the first of many.

Minnesota has been on a Rubio triple-double watch for weeks, ever since he came within a rebound of one – a rebound that appeared on the stat monitor for a fleeting moment before being credited elsewhere – on Feb. 13. Since then, it's been five near-misses, and after a month of such high-level play, there was no doubt that Rubio would get his milestone. It was simply a matter of when, and so Tuesday proved little about the point guard.

"Ricky was terrific," Rick Adelman said after the game. "He really set the tone."

Of course he was, and in this past month, when has he ever not?

What's missing from any Rubio-centric stat line, though, is something much more meta. When he snared that 10th rebound, the Timberwolves were up, 83-60, on their way to a 107-83 win over the Spurs. Those are the Spurs of the Western Conference's best record, the Spurs of Gregg Popovich's masterful system, the Spurs of a 25-71 all-time record over the Timberwolves going into Tuesday. Sure, San Antonio was without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, but it's hung with and beaten better teams with less this season, and more than once.

That, in a nutshell, is what made Tuesday so special. It wasn't the arbitrary designation that to do three things at least 10 times is to make it noteworthy, not for Ricky Rubio, not for a team that had won just seven games in 2013. Rubio said it best himself: "Stats are the last thing I try to watch. The victory is the most important thing."

To have watched the point guard over these trying weeks is to believe him wholeheartedly in that. To have seen him slouch and lurk under a perpetually furrowed brow, to have seen him play so hard it makes your knees hurt, too, is to understand, just a bit, what it must feel like to be that talented on this exasperated of a team. If it takes a triple-double from Rubio to get his team a win, then so be it, but I can't imagine him caring a whit if this spectacle had unfolded during another humdrum loss.

Of course what Rubio did will function effectively as white-out over Chris Johnson's six blocked shots, Alexey Shved's 16 points on 75 percent shooting and J.J. Barea's five 3-pointers. That's how things like this work, and no amount of abject selflessness from Rubio is going to change that. But in a way, those peripheral performances matter as much, if not more, than any triple-double ever could, at least on this team in this kind of slump. To see Shved break out of a 13-of-59 shooting debacle, to see Johnson look a bit more like a bona fide NBA player, to see Barea hurdle his way back into one of his hot streaks – all that was, if not unexpected, then at least a pleasant surprise and a move in the right direction. Rubio, for his part, has been doing nearly as much as he did Tuesday every night for his battered team.

"Our team, the way we've been going, it's nice to see someone have a game like that, and it's nice to see him rewarded," Adelman said.

His reward, though, will be another game 23 hours after Tuesday's, in Indiana against a 39-24 Pacers team. His reward was a long ice bath, some work on his battered legs, the Timberwolves holding the plane that there was no way he'd have made it to by the posted 10:30 p.m. cutoff. But planes don't leave without Ricky Rubio. Not now, and probably not for a very long while.

It's impossible to think that Tuesday won't be the first of many. Hell, Derrick Williams was talking quadruple-doubles for his teammate last week, throwing steals into the equation. That's a lofty goal, of course, but the way Rubio plays, it's hard to think there's too much that's out of reach. He's 22 years old, after all, three days removed from the one-year anniversary of a devastating ACL tear. He's playing for the most injured NBA team in recent memory, under circumstances no one would envy. Things can only get better from here.

A funny thing happened when Rubio was talking to the media after the game. I started imagining what he'll be like as a veteran in 10 years. How many more of these nights will he have put down in the record books? Perhaps more importantly, how many teammates will he have shown exactly the meaning of playing out of one's mind? It might be a silly train of thought, born of ignoring questions and answers I wasn't particularly interested in, but the kid makes you think: What could be in store?

And that's the beauty of a night like Tuesday. It can erase, for a second, the Timberwolves' injuries and unmet expectations, broken metacarpals and the rigid realities of cartilage. It can make the future something other than a fallback talking point for a team nowhere near contention, but something to genuinely anticipate.

The Timberwolves won, and so all is right with Ricky Rubio. Ricky Rubio dazzled, and so all is right with the Timberwolves. You give some, you get some, and after the game, Rubio offered his assessment: "It was fun to play today," he said, because for him, that's just about all that maters.

And that's how he does it. That's how he keeps so many eyes glued to his every move, so much attention trained on him and him alone. Sentences like that one.

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