Ricky Rubio was mugged on a drive and there was no call. Toronto came away with the basketball, and Rubio rallied to steal it back. He was sitting on the floor, being clawed at, and you expected a frantic request for a timeout.
That’s not what the Target Center crowd saw Friday night. Rather than panic, Rubio noticed the flash of a teammate, Andrei Kirilenko, breaking down the middle of the court. He pushed a pass in Kirilenko’s direction, Andrei went for a layup and was fouled, resulting in a three-point play.
A couple of minutes later, with 57 seconds left in the first quarter, Rubio was called for his second foul and went to the bench. Just like that, the Timberwolves’ offense went from flowing to stumbling.
Eventually, the Raptors took advantage of the matchup favoring DeMar DeRozan and the offensive talent of Rudy Gay to hold a 94-92 lead in the closing seconds. The Wolves made a defensive stand, the ball came to Rubio and he sped down the right side, headed for the basket.
Rubio was fouled in the act of shooting, made the first free throw, and had the tying attempt rattle out. Another Wolves’ foul gave Toronto a final point and a 95-93 victory.
The Wolves came back Saturday night and gave coach Rick Adelman his 1,000th regular-season victory by beating Detroit 107-101. Rubio had a horrible night shooting, and yet the Wolves were a plus-17 when he was on the court, demonstrating that he is the player this team can rally around and escape from the abyss.
That abyss includes eight consecutive losing seasons — from the fall of 2005 to this spring. In Minnesota’s major league era that started in 1961, that will equal the fledgling Timberwolves of 1989 into 1997, and the Twins from 1993 through 2000 for the longest stretch of losing seasons.
Rubio blew out his left knee March 9, 2012 and the Timberwolves collapsed. He returned on Dec. 15 as a shadow of himself and to a shadow of a team ravaged by injuries and frequent illness.
He wasn’t in a situation to start making demands on his teammates, not as he was occupied trying to regain those lost two steps on his repaired left knee.
The Wolves were an abysmal 6-18 from the start of February into the middle of March. One good thing happened during this futility: Rubio’s movement and his game returned.
For all the accolades that came Adrian Peterson’s way for his recovery from knee surgery, he was averaging a modest 83 yards through six games last season. It was Oct. 21 when he started the romp past 2,000 yards and to the NFL’s MVP award — 10½ months from surgery to full throttle.
Rubio’s surgery took place last March 21. He was back playing big minutes and playing fast in early February — 10½ months after surgery.
The difference is Peterson was back carrying a healthy team to the playoffs, and Rubio was playing in the middle of an infirmary.
Once the left knee could sustain his game, it was the losing that started to wear on Rubio. He was a veteran pro at 22 and had not experienced full-blown losing, not in Spain and not in the 41 games (21-20) leading to his knee injury as an NBA rookie.
By several accounts, Rubio became more forceful in the locker room, challenging teammates not to accept what had become another Wolves’ trademark, late-season collapse.
Think of the emotional message in “The Big Lebowski”: “This aggression will not stand!’’
In Rubio’s case it was: “This lack of aggression will not stand!’’
The Timberwolves are now 6-5 since March 21, which is also the one-year anniversary of Rubio’s surgery. Six-and-5 isn’t worthy of a parade; it’s merely an improvement on the annual death march.
Rubio’s overall play in those 11 games was tremendous. He’s now the soul of this team. That will remain so when the Timberwolves reassemble next October with Kevin Love in uniform.
Money will be the No. 1 factor in the potential returns of Nikola Pekovic, Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger, but No. 2 will be this: They want to play with Ricky Rubio.
They know that Rubio is driven to get them the ball. They know that Rubio is driven to win and not by personal glory. And they know that if they stick around, Rubio will get this team out of the abyss.