Despite Kevin Love's historic numbers, Nikola Pekovic's continued beastliness and the recent return to the lineup of role-playing reserves Ronny Turiaf and Chase Budinger, the Minnesota Timberwolves continue to chase good with bad, following up strong performances (blowout wins over the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Bobcats) with dispiriting ones (the late collapse against the Phoenix Suns, the steamrolling at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs). The peripheral stats make them look like a postseason contender, but the late-game woes and locker-room sniping make them look like a team in turmoil, and the water only grew choppier after a sleepwalking loss to the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday that dropped Minnesota to 18-20, four games back of the Dallas Mavericks for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio didn't play a second in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's loss. A few things about that:
• This isn't the first time that's happened. He's actually been held out of 10 fourth quarters in 38 appearances this year;
• It makes some sense, considering Rubio had missed four of six shots, committed five turnovers and allowed Sacramento point guard Isaiah Thomas to go off for 17 points and seven assists through three quarters against the Kings — and especially considering Rubio's shooting just 18.2 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3-point land in fourth quarters this season, with the Wolves getting outscored by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions with Rubio on the floor in the fourth this year, according to NBA.com's stat tool;
• He wasn't alone, as Wolves head coach Rick Adelman also sat down starting shooting guard Kevin Martin, despite having scored 14 points, in search of a spark and/or a bit of defense; it actually kind of worked, as Alexey Shved and J.J. Barea combined for 16 points, four assists and no turnovers to help spur a Minnesota comeback that fell just short.
“I was trying to find a group that was going to compete and play,” Adelman said after the game, according to Kent Youngblood of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “And something positive was happening, at least. The energy was better.”
He's turned in a few strong performances this season, but whether you're talking about the energy or the jumper, something sure has seemed off with Rubio for most of this season. As the Wolves prepared to take on the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors on Friday, the 23-year-old triggerman opened up about his struggles to Jon Krawczynski of The Associated Press:
''I'm going to be honest. I'm not feeling comfortable out there," Rubio told The Associated Press after a light practice on Thursday. "I'm not being myself and the team is noticing. I just have to be back where I was, be myself. I'm working on that. It's something that's missing. It's tough for me, too." [...]
"It's basketball. I love it," Rubio said. "But I'm just not having as much fun as it used to be. I know it has to be professional. But I just want to have fun. It's hard to find it right now." [...]
More than anything, these Timberwolves need a leader. And in so many ways, Rubio fits that bill. His unselfish play makes teammates happy and his natural charisma can act as a unifying force. But Rubio is reluctant to be too assertive while he is struggling on the court.
"I would like to be a leader, but leading by example," he said. "That's the way I am. That's the way I've been playing my whole career. But when I don't feel comfortable, it's hard to be that leader. It's something that I just have to get back on track and lead by example out there, busting my ass and bringing energy every night."
Rubio was talking about a relative lack of fun in Wolves games at this time last year, too. Back then, Minnesota had lost 11 of 15, had just found out they'd lost Love for what would wind up being the rest of the season, and the Spaniard found himself tasked with buoying the emotions of and leading a Timberwolves team struggling on just about every level. Some things are a little different this time around — the Wolves are playing .500 ball over the last five weeks, their bruising interior duo is soaring, and they now have their full expected rotation together — but one thing remains constant: Rubio's inability to put the ball in the basket.
This isn't new. Rubio's shooting percentages were bad in Spain, they were bad during his first and second seasons in Minnesota, and they're bad now — right around average from 3-point range (36.4 percent) but drastically below average everywhere else (barely 42 percent at the rim, 21 percent on shots in the paint but outside the restricted area, and 27 percent on midrange jumpers) this season. There are plenty of reasons why — he tends to wrong-foot and rush layups, he's got a slow release, he doesn't have a go-to floater, he's not strong enough to finish through contact, etc. — but as Adelman told Youngblood, he thinks his point guard's issues have less to do with a lack of desire than with some ghosts between his ears:
“He plays very hard,” Adelman said. “He’s got to figure out that basketball is really a game of mistakes. You’ve got to find a way not to make ’em over and over again. He gets really down on himself too much. He’s just got to play, make the easy play. It doesn’t have to be a great play. When something doesn’t happen for him, he tries too hard and that compounds it.” [...]
“When things are not going the right way, the only thing I [blame] is myself,” Rubio said. “Sometimes I’m too hard [on myself]. I want to be perfect. I know it’s hard, but it’s the way I am.”
It's commendable to hold yourself to a high standard and to strive for something better; as a pretty smart guy once said, "Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure." Staying in the weight room, getting more shots up and watching more film are all totally reasonable things for players to do when they want to improve, especially when it seems like their game has forsaken them. But given that what makes Rubio so special — both to watch for us fans and, to hear teammates tell it, to play alongside — is the way that his innate talent for seeing and creating makes things easier and more fun for others, it's a shame that he seems to have misplaced his ability to do the same for himself.
For the Timberwolves to be the best version of themselves, the version that has a real chance to challenge a top team in a first-round matchup, the Wolves need an audacious, thrilling Rubio who can keep an opposing defender at least halfway honest in the half-court. It's hard to see that coming to pass if he keeps banging his head into a rock every time he clangs one (or two, or three). So change your face, Ricky. Be happy. Your team's season might depend on it.
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