Posted Mar 10 2012 9:40PM
Levity was as hard to come by as playoff berths at Target Center in recent seasons, as the Minnesota Timberwolves grimly ground out 82 games, year after year, with nothing on their spring schedules besides tee times and advance-purchased airfares home. Losing was bad enough -- a 78-250 record from 2007-08 through last season and five head-coach firings dating back to 2005 -- but injuries got heaped onto the insults anyway.
For five years running, a Wolves lottery-pick player suffered an injury serious enough to gouge into his second season. Rashad McCants (2005, knee), Randy Foye (2006, knee), Corey Brewer (2007, knee), Kevin Love (2008, hand) and Jonny Flynn (2009, hip) all had breakdowns, choking off more of the team's sputtering hopes. Those into gallows humor began to wonder aloud: Maybe Target Center was built on an ancient Native-American burial ground after all.
Now this. The scoreboard reads Angry Ancient Spirits 6, Timberwolves 0 with the news that rookie point guard Ricky Rubio's 2011-12 season is over due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee. Knocked out with him -- or dealt a wincing body blow, anyway -- might be the Wolves' postseason ambitions and what had been a true NBA revival in Minnesota this winter.
[Before we proceed, can someone up there roll Derrick Williams in some bubble wrap, please?]
The Wolves had touted the clash Friday against the Lakers as a "whiteout" game, leaving a T-shirt at every seat, with the newfound expectation that both would be filled. What they got, instead, was a wipeout game -- Rubio crumpling to the court after jumping at and colliding with Lakers star Kobe Bryant with 16 seconds left in the 105-102 defeat.
The impact looked minor but Rubio's reaction sent worries through the team and the stands instantly. Everyone's worst fears were confirmed with an MRI exam Saturday. Rubio's rookie season, which began so late, suddenly was ending early, and in this wondrous 24/7 wired world, reaction from around the league was immediate.
Minnesota's Kevin Love, who had missed the game with back spasms, reached out via Twitter. @kevinlove: "Love my teammate and friend @rickyrubio9. Here's to a quick recovery. We will miss you.
Clippers guard Chris Paul, a Rubio comrade in playmaking, "tweeted" too. @CP3: Prayers out to @rickyrubio9 and hoping for a speedy recovery! Baron Davis, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were among a dozen or more who reacted swiftly to the dreary news. So did Pau Gasol and Jose Calderon, Rubio's mates on Spain's national team who will compete without him in the 2012 Olympics in London.
Rubio's Twitter feed was quiet for about 15 hours from late Friday till midday Saturday. Then he bounced back in English and Spanish translations. @rickyrubio9: Thank you everybody for ur support.I promise I will be back soon and stronger. There is only one way to take: move forward and stay positive.
That really is the only way to go, right? It just might prove as hard as anything Rubio has encountered yet in his solid, at times sensational rookie season. He'll be the one under the knife but others far and wide will be saying "Ouch!" with this knee surgery:
There were obvious signs that he was hitting the proverbial rookie wall, both physically and psychologically in recent weeks. His field-goal percentage in February and March had dipped to 33.0 percent, down from 38.2 in the first five weeks. Opponents were banging him at and away from the ball, to the point that the Wolves sent a video mix to NBA headquarters to alert referees to the tactics. It was going to be Rubio's challenge to adjust to the adjustments he was facing and to gather himself for a playoff push, which would be the next logical step for his team too.
That all comes to a screeching halt now that Rubio has hit the wall knee-first. Any alterations in his game -- like learning how Steve Nash manages to go over or under picks without absorbing constant punishment -- will have to wait until next season. And next season will have to wait, too, because if Rubio's rehab pushes toward the back end of the six-to-nine months typically required after ACL surgery, only another lockout would save him from missing a chunk of 2012-13.
Spanish national team
The Gasol brothers, Calderon and the rest will have to take their chances without Rubio in London. It will be tougher for Spain to get a rematch with the U.S. squad for gold now. And it makes you think twice now about the good-natured jibe Rubio took at Bryant back in January after a Lakers-Wolves game in Minnesota, when he teased the Black Mamba about playing for silver this summer. Coincidence that Bryant was the guy with whom Rubio collided Friday? Of course. But still ...
In recent days, with the March 15 deadline approaching, Minnesota's Luke Ridnour had been talked of as a trade chip -- to Portland for shooter Jamal Crawford was one of the rumors. But the Wolves, who were eager to reinforce for their playoff push, may have turned from sellers to buyers now at the point-guard position. J.J. Barea is out with a sprained left ankle and might not be healthy for most or all of a seven-game trip that begins Monday in Phoenix. At 9-9, the Wolves are one of only five West teams playing .500 or better away from home but that could head south fast now. If Michael Beasley, much speculated upon, does get moved, would a point guard be part of the package back?
The Wolves, it should be noted, have no incentive to shift gears and backpedal toward better lottery odds because their first-round pick belongs to New Orleans. It was part of the Clippers' deal for Chris Paul and has been owed, through various protections that no longer apply, since Minnesota sent it with Sam Cassell for Marko Jaric back in 2005.
There are no silver linings for Minnesota in this, but a glimmer of something positive might be the opportunities it creates for others. Coach Rick Adelman said before Saturday's game vs. New Orleans that he would refrain from starting Ridnour and Barea together, though he might pair them later in games. So Martell Webster and Wayne Ellington might get more minutes and fresh chances. And so might Malcolm Lee, the second-round rookie from UCLA whose only action has come in the D-League. A 6-foot-5, 200-pound combo guard who was the No. 43 pick in last June's draft (via a deal with Chicago), Lee was recalled from his second stint with the Sioux Falls entry. He had knee surgery of his own (torn meniscus) in December, then averaged 10.1 points, 5.9 assists and 4.1 rebounds while shooting 33.8 percent for the Skyforce.
Target Center was alive again, for the first time in any sustained sense since Kevin Garnett got traded in 2007 and in some way since the last playoff appearance in 2004. Rather than boo bad performances on the court or in the front office, Minnesotans tend to stay home and lose interest, and there was a whole lot of apathy in the Upper Midwest, save for the occasional 20/20 games by Kevin Love.
With Rubio's arrival -- like a rock star, really, with TV crews meeting his flight from Spain at the airport -- energized the joint. Chants of "Ole! Ole, ole, ole!" rattled around Target Center and the numbers backed it up: Minnesota ranked 14th in home attendance (17,403) heading into Saturday's games, up from 24th last season. Ticket sales are up 14 percent -- in a still-down economy, after a lockout. The SRO crowd of 20,232 when the Knicks visited on Feb. 11 was the Wolves' largest since the 2003-04 season, and its sellout Friday was Minnesota's seventh, most since Garnett's final year.
Rubio's production and work in setting up teammates has been key to the team's improved play. He ranked fifth in assists (8.5) and third in steals (2.22), and was among the league leaders in charges drawn and in alley-oop assists. He had 12 point-assists double-doubles, despite not starting his first 10 games, and helped the Wolves to an 18-13 mark in the 31 games he did start.
Pro-rate that over a full 82-game season and that's a 48-victory pace -- and that would have been the equivalent of a 31-game improvement over last season's 17-65. That's David Robinson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar territory for a one-season turnaround. With assists to Adelman, Love, Nikola Pekovic and David Kahn, of course.
Now it's all on hold -- the highlights, maybe the excitement, possibly the winning. NBA fans in Minnesota had to wait 2 1/2 years for Ricky Rubio. Waiting six to nine months is going to feel even longer, though, because now they know what they've got.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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