Rubio's Steals On The Rise

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Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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Wolves guard Ricky Rubio showed early in his rookie season the type of energy and tone he can set on the defensive end. Before he was injured last year, Rubio was a menace on the perimeter, averaging 2.2 steals per game and ranking near the top of the league in the theft department.

When Rubio returned in December, those steals didn’t come back to him right away. A combination of reduced minutes, conditioning and adjusting back to the NBA game led to those numbers dropping during the first month and a half of his 2012-13 season.

Now, it appears he’s back and better than ever.

Rubio enters tonight’s game against Phoenix having accumulated 23 steals in his last five games. That’s a 4.6 steals per game stretch, and it trails only Tyrone Corbin’s 26 from March 28-April 6, 1990, in franchise history for most steals in a five-game stretch.

A year ago he had two six-steal games and two five-steal games as a rookie. This year, he already has three five-steal performances and a six-steal effort, which came last time out against the Warriors on Sunday. During this five-game stretch, he has no fewer than three steals (Wednesday against Philly) and has five or more in three of the five outings.

“He works hard at it,” assistant coach Jack Sikma said. “He’s really aware of where the ball is. He has a good idea of where it’s going, nice anticipation.”

Rubio said it’s a combination of aggressiveness and confidence, and both are an important part of his defensive acumen. In order to come up with steals, a player needs to not only have the active hands but also the trust that help defense will be there in case the opportunity is lost. Last year, the Wolves praised the rookie Rubio for the way he set the tone defensively—something that was a surprise aspect of his game when he entered the NBA. It appears that as he continues to return to full strength—he’s as close now as he’s ever been, playing the exceptional, flashy ball we’re used to on both ends of the floor—he increasingly brings that edge on the defensive end back to this Wolves team.

It doesn’t go unnoticed by his teammates.

“It just makes opposing guards more leery of him,” forward Dante Cunningham said. “They’re not pushing as hard. They’re not making the same crisp passes they were making. They’re hesitant, it slows them down.”

Rubio averaged 1.2 steals per game during December, a half-month’s worth of play after returning from knee surgery that was effectively the lowest steals total month of his career. He bumped it up to 1.8 in January, and he’s currently on a 2.8 steals per game clip in February that is the most productive theft month of his young career.

Sikma said another big component of that is conditioning. When Rubio returned in December, he had gone nine full months without playing an NBA game. There isn’t any substitute for recreating how the legs and lungs react to playing against the top basketball players in the world on a nightly basis. It has taken time for Rubio’s legs to get back under him, and now that they’re back he’s showing he can make a big impact on the defensive end at an even greater statistical clip than before.

A lot of it is motion. Sikma said Rubio has such active hands that he can create loose ball situations.

And then…

“One thing he does really well is once it is loose, he captures it,” Sikma said. “He has as quickness to the ball, quick hands, snatches it. I think now that he’s playing consistent minutes, he’s in better shape, his speed is starting to show up again.”

Coach Rick Adelman said Rubio’s anticipation stands out most to him. He knows where the ball is headed, understands what opposing teams are trying to do and finds a way to get into that scheme. He said good defensive players across the league have that knack, and Rubio certainly is a part of that group.

“He’s just comfortable now,” Cunningham said. “He’s settling in.”

That confidence permeates to others on the team. Rubio’s teammates know he is capable of injecting some energy into their defensive efforts, and Rubio knows he has help behind him to help back up his aggressive play.

That’s important, too. The Wolves began the season strong defensively but have had trouble sustaining that over the course of the season. Being able to get back into sound defensive play is something the Wolves hope to accomplish over the final month and a half of the season, and Rubio’s energetic play will be part of that.

It’s a collective effort.

“I know he feels more comfortable jumping out there and knowing he has a team behind him willing to step up, take charges or willing to take his man as he goes to get the next open man. With that kind of confidence, it makes for a good defender to take more risks.”

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