“Sometimes when you lose, you actually really win.” – Poet Laureate, Rosie Perez.
If I told you the Wolves had a fourth quarter lead and eventually lost it, you’d probably first make a joke about how there was no way they’d ever lead in the fourth quarter. After I showed you how many times they blew fourth quarter leads under the reign of Kurt Rambis on the sidelines, you’d feel a bit sheepish, but still feel valid in knowing it’s ridiculous to think about the Wolves having a chance to win games, especially against good teams.
To watch what happened with the Minnesota Timberwolves on opening night is to understand just how important this loss was toward a change in the culture of basketball in the city of Minneapolis. Sure, they had a lead late in the fourth quarter and ended up losing out on upsetting the Oklahoma City Thunder. Nobody really expected them to win coming into the game. It was a new team with a new coach and very little time to implement schemes and comfort. As the game progressed and we saw a dissemination of hope filling the stuffy Target Center atmosphere, the expectations grew.
Each drive into the lane by J.J. Barea was an assumption of production. Each time Kevin Love crashed the offensive boards for mop-up duty scoring, we bowed to our historic leader. And the Ricky Rubio era went from hoping he can make a couple of plays to expecting him to negotiate a victory with basketball fortune.
To say Ricky Rubio had a nice debut is to pretend that crispy bacon can be part of an slightly enjoyable breakfast. Rubio’s false advertising was a myth. He controlled the game in ways you can’t really expect of a rookie point guard in his first game. Hell, he controlled the game in ways you can’t expect some veterans to do. He knew when to excite the crowd with bounce passes that immaculately conceptualized squeals of bewilderment. He knew when to slow down the game to ensure the Wolves weren’t just recklessly bounding from highlight to highlight in an attempt to seem relevant.
What we expected from Rubio came to fruition. His passing is some Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss in a pick-up truck type of stuff. It’s not that they’re flashy. It’s that they’re flashy with a purpose. Some people throw a behind the back pass because it makes them look good. Rubio’s threads were to make the team look good. When you can inspire your teammates by giving them the ball, that’s a special quality. Everything had flair, but it didn’t have the minimum of 15 pieces of flair. Even Chotchkies would ask him to tone it down a bit.
While Rubio was busy exciting the crowd with remarkable bounce passes, he was also figuring out that he belonged on the court.
Russell Westbrook didn’t respect Ricky Rubio’s presence on the court. He didn’t respect his presence as someone to talk about. He was upset when asked questions about Rubio. He was upset when the crowd cheered for Rubio. He wanted to make sure everybody knew that HE was the All-Star and RUBIO wasn’t. He burned Ricky on backdoor cuts. He powered through Ricky in transition for buckets and fouls. With every score, he glared in Ricky’s direction. With every bit of success the Wolves enjoyed during the competitive fourth quarter, Westbrook made sure to dismiss Rubio’s contribution by smiling when Ricky dare accept his assignment and defend Russ.
And I get it. I don’t fault Russell for these tactics. He waged psychological warfare on Rubio like he was opening up a nice Chianti and slow-cooking some fava beans. He wanted to intimidate and frustrate the rookie. He was hazing him without giving him a Hello Kitty backpack. The beautiful thing about the entire situation was Ricky didn’t bend or break. In fact, it brought out a competitive streak I wasn’t sure he had.
Rubio turned Westbrook into an iso player, and it briefly took the Thunder out of their sets. With 3:30 left in the game and the Thunder up one, Westbrook drove the right side of the lane against Rubio. Despite being presumed to be too slow to stay with guys like Westbrook, Wall, and Rose, Ricky slid his feet, stayed in front of Russ and sold a charge to the ref for the turnover. Next play down, he ran a quick pick-and-pop on the left side of the floor. Dribbled to the middle and pulled up for a 17-footer. The kid can’t shoot a lick, but he dropped a go-ahead basket with just over three minutes remaining like it was something he just does to do it.
An All-Star point guard, who turns ankles into dust, couldn’t put away a team trusting an allegedly over-matched rookie. He tried to break him. He tried to embarrass him. He tried to make him wish he never left Barcelona. Like a puppy learning the boundaries between playfully biting and being in full attack mode, Rubio kept coming back for more. He kept testing the boundaries of stuff he’s not supposed to do and did it.
Is it possible I’m overrating a 6-point, 6-assist, 5-rebound, zero-turnover effort? Is it possible I’m jumping the gun on one game when I should be pacing myself for the ups and downs of a oddly condensed season? Absolutely.
But all I’ve heard for the past two-and-a-half years is how Ricky Rubio couldn’t play in the league. All I’ve heard about is how overrated, over-hyped, under-talented, overestimated he is and that he has no place in the NBA. His passing isn’t going to be that good. His defense is going to be terrible because he’s slow and European. He can’t shoot and won’t be able to score at all in the NBA. He’s just not good and he’s already a bust before he plays a minute in the league. I’ve defended Rubio and said we needed to give him a chance to play before we could make such absolute accusations. I and my fellow Wolves fans have been laughed at for thinking he could help this team. We’ve been chastised for holding out hope that he could make a difference.
After one game? It all looks like a congealed, steaming slab of malarkey.
Rubio can play and he sure as hell belongs in this league. Is he going to have bad nights? Absolutely. He’s also going to have nights better than this modest and yet crucial debut. He’s going to push back at the top point guards he has no business being on the court against and he’s going to win some of these battles. He’s going to help Rick Adelman, Kevin Love, and all of his teammates fix this organization.
Yeah, the Wolves ended up losing tonight. But it kind of feels like they won.