The Minnesota Timberwolves were determined to get off to a quick start in their first game of tough string of contests on Tuesday night, roaring out of the gate in Washington behind a pair of strong runs, taking a 12-point lead at the half. Ricky Rubio even hit two of three shots during one 19-5 first quarter run, including a three-pointer, before being forced to sit for a huge chunk of the first half after collecting two fouls.
We’ve discussed our aversion to that coaching decision here for years – you get six fouls to work with, what’s the terrible danger that would set in if you head to halftime with three fouls? Rubio came off the bench midway through the third quarter and picked up that third foul, no big deal, in just 15 seconds of play. Wolves coach Rick Adelman then sat him the rest of the half, before playing him the entirety of a foul-free third quarter.
What happened next was just as curious, though we may agree with it more than the decision to pull Rubio after two fouls in the first quarter. Rubio didn’t play a second in the fourth quarter, as capable reserve guard J.J. Barea led the Wolves attack after Minnesota was outscored 30-18 in the third quarter with Rubio at the helm. In a close one, the Wizards prevailed 104-100, and Rubio was clearly frustrated at not being able to help stave off Washington’s comeback win. From Jerry Zgoda at the Star Tribune:
Afterward, Adelman said, “I was just playing the people I thought were playing well at the time, that’s all.”
“I think it affect me in a bad way,” said Rubio, who finished with just 10 points and two assists. “It can’t happen again. It got me frustrated, but it’s something I have to get through. It [playing time] is coach’s decision. I think J.J. was doing a great job. It’s something I have to accept. I have to improve, and I have to be better next time.”
Rubio’s final stats in the contest (10 points on 3-5 shooting, three turnovers and two assists in 19 minutes) weren’t exactly atrocious, but his inability to keep John Wall (seven assists in the third quarter) from orchestrating the Wizards’ comeback played into the benching. For a young player with a recent ACL tear on his resume, Rubio remains a fantastic defender on and off the ball, but for whatever reason Adelman never reached back to his starter at the usual time just a few minutes into the fourth quarter.
Barea had a fine fourth quarter stat line with four points and three assists in 12 minutes, but it wasn’t enough. The Wizards hunkered down defensively after Minnesota’s hot start, one that saw Kevin Love go off for 16 first quarter points, shutting down both Love and Kevin Martin as they attempted to go for what Adelman called “home run” plays in the second half. This, of course, makes sense: Washington put together a players-only meeting prior to the game in response to a disappointing 2-7 start to the season, and rumors about Randy Wittman’s job security.
Love at least recognized this, telling the media after the game that “you got a sense it was do-or-die game for them” before smartly pointing out “that’s how it needs to be for us every night.” He’s obviously aware of his team’s tough upcoming schedule, one that features seven contests against the Clippers, Nets, Rockets, Pacers, Mavericks, Spurs and Heat spread out over its next eight games.
Rubio and Barea have been teammates for a while, and these sorts of late game maneuvers have happened in the past; but never on a Timberwolves team that is this good, one playing for this much. Barea will be the first to tell you that the Timberwolves are functioning at their best with Rubio both starting, starring, and finishing games; but it isn’t the worst thing in the world if J.J. Barea, capable point guard, finishes a contest off. Especially as the Timberwolves were just a few Martin and Love jumpers away from holding the Wizards at arm’s length.
Credit Washington for getting the stops it needed on those two late in the contest. And credit Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, working for one of the weirder NBA franchises of the last half-decade, for understanding what has to come next.
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