Rubio Continues To Show Recovery Trajectory Against Thunder
Shootaround Access: Thunder Have Seen Rubio's Recovery, Improvement Throughout Season
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Ricky Rubio’s grace and confidence on the floor is not lost on Thunder coach Scott Brooks. He’s seen the progression of Rubio’s game over the course of this season by pure coincidence, and as the Wolves and Thunder get set for their fourth and final meeting of the year one things stands out to him.
“I liked him much better at the start of the season,” Brooks joked. “He was easier to guard.”
Like the rest of the NBA is finding out, Rubio’s game continues to strengthen after returning to the court in December from ACL and LCL surgery on his left knee. The Thunder have seen him three times since his return: Rubio’s third game back on Dec. 20, his seventh game back on Jan. 9 and his 27th game on Feb. 22.
His numbers continued to grow. In that first game, Rubio didn’t score and had three assists in a 99-93 victory at Target Center. Rubio put up zero points and seven assists in their second matchup in January and 13 points and nine assists in their February meeting. That last outing came right about the time Rubio was really starting to produce statistics on par if not exceeding the numbers he boasted as a rookie.
In Rubio’s last 26 games, he has scored in double digits 23 times, added 11 double-digit assist efforts and produced nine double-doubles—including his first career triple-double against the Spurs on March 12.
With the Wolves’ offensive rhythm really starting to shine through, it’s a two-part combination of Rubio getting back on track and the team regaining its health overall. And that’s certainly catching the Thunder’s attention.
“He doesn’t look like he had an ACL injury,” forward Kevin Durant said. “He looks good to me. They have a great point guard here in Minnesota, and he’s going to be great for years to come.”
It’s been an evolution of sorts throughout the past 3 ½ months. Rubio had an adrenaline-filled return against Dallas on Dec. 15, then began to show the lagging effects of missing nine months to injury. His reaction times weren’t quite up to what he showed as a rookie, the alley-oops weren’t frequent and he needed to watch his knee’s durability as well as his own conditioning on a strict minute-count.
But as the minutes came back, so did the conditioning and the reflexes. It was like his mind was seeing and processing everything it had in the past, but his body was working up to the full recovery. Now he’s back, and in this fourth and final matchup with the Thunder, Oklahoma City is preparing for what could be up Rubio’s sleeve tonight.
“You can just tell his confidence level is high, his ability to impact games is—he just has that uncanny way of getting around players, scoring around the basket,” Brooks said. “Making easier shots for his team. He’s going to be a very, very good point guard for a lot of years. He just has that contagious winning attitude that the guys seem to attract to, but I think he just plays. He plays hard, and he plays hard for his team and he’s always willing to get his team points. There’s never been a teammate that doesn’t like a guy like that.”
His productivity, along with the team’s health, is finally catching up with one another here in the latter part of the season. Brooks sympathized with Minnesota’s injury woes this year, noting you can’t win in this league if you don’t have your best players healthy. Now, with Rubio back in form, minor setbacks to Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko—among others—in the rearview and forward Chase Budinger back on the court, Minnesota is starting to score at rates they hadn’t all season. In their past 10 games, the Wolves are averaging 101.6 points per night and are coming off a 117-point effort against the Lakers.
Durant said Budinger helps because of the way he stretches the floor and forces opponents to honor his ability to shoot open jumpers from the perimeter and drive to the basket. With the Wolves as close to “healthy” as they’ve been for months, this will be a challenge tonight keeping the Rick Adelman-led offense under control.
“We have to be on point every possession and have to know they have cutters cutting back door when they have pick and rolls, and they have so many actions on the court at one time,” Durant said. “We have to make sure we take away one, but we have to have a second effort to take away another.”
Much of that begins with Rubio, who has gotten stronger and more effective in each game he’s played against OKC this year. What will he have in store tonight?
“I think with an injury like that, it’s going to take time,” guard Kevin Martin said. “He might be playing well now, but he’s probably not anywhere near where he’s going to be when training camp opens up next year. It’s good to see him heading in a positive direction, because he will be one of the best point guards in the league one day.”
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