Pregame: Wolves Players Look To Step Up In Rubio's Absence

Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio made a big impact on the team in his first two months, helping turn Minnesota into a competitive Western Conference club with his court awareness, his unique passing skills and his relentless defense.

When the team found out Rubio would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) in his left knee, the Wolves understood that each member of the club has a big job ahead of him trying to fill in for Rubio’s role on the team. The team will look to do just that on this seven-game road trip which begins at 9 p.m. tonight in Phoenix.

“As a team, man, collectively we’ve got to step up to the challenge,” guard Wayne Ellington said. “That’s what it’s all about. When you lose one of your teammates, you have to come even closer as a unit. We have to pick up where we’ve lost.”

Wolves center Nikola Pekovic said Rubio wasn’t just a creative point guard. Early on in his rookie season he became a leader for the Timberwolves with the way he played the game. Forward Kevin Love said he brought a flair both on and off the court that is hard to replicate.

Still, Minnesota has shown throughout the season it has a roster filled with players who are able to step up. Through the first three weeks of the season, when coach Rick Adelman was still getting to know which rotations would yield the best production on the court, the Timberwolves used different combinations of players each night.

In Saturday’s game against New Orleans, Adelman again went back to that strategy. Without Rubio and fellow guard JJ Barea—who is sidelined with a sprained left ankle—Minnesota moved Luke Ridnour to the starting point guard position and started Martell Webster next to him at shooting guard. He rotated in both Ellington and rookie Malcolm Lee into the back court at different points in the game.

Lee, who has spent most of the season recovering from his own knee surgery and playing for Sioux Falls in the NBA Development League, only played five minutes in the first regular season appearance of his career. But Lee said he’s comfortable with the team’s offensive and defensive sets and is ready to go when his number is called.

He said he learned a lot from Rubio in their time together.

“Just his reads, his pick and rolls, how he reads things,” Lee said. “He always has a good awareness of where his teammates are at on the floor.”

Ellington stepped in on Saturday and scored 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting. He had played 13 total minutes in the previous 11 games—including no playing time in nine of those contests—but when he was asked to step in he made the most of his opportunity.

“He did a nice job in there,” Adelman said after Saturday’s game. “But everybody, we’ve got to have everybody. Especially with two of our top players (Rubio and Barea) out, we’ve got to have everyone else playing.”

Adelman said he is willing to play both Ridnour and Barea together when Barea returns, but it is unlikely he will start two point guards moving forward. Unlike when Rubio was available, he said he needs to make sure his point guards are getting enough rest.

Forward Anthony Tolliver said the team will need to adjust however necessary in the coming weeks. The Wolves are still in the thick of the playoff hunt, and with seven consecutive road games coming up Minnesota needs to stay focused.

“It’s a work in progress,” Tolliver said. “We’ll definitely see how everybody reacts. I think we still have enough talent to be fine, to still get (to the playoffs). We’re still in a position of strength to control our own destiny. So as long as we stay on pace and continue to win games, I think we have a great chance.”

Love said the key is focus.

“(Rubio’s) personality, being around him, it’s great for our team,” Love said. “We’re going to miss that, but it’s not something you can replace personality-wise. But as far as play goes, we can have other guys play big.”

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