ORLANDO – Say what you will about the theory that Target Center is built on an ancient Indian burial ground or that hex supposedly leveled by a disgruntled former employee named Joey Two Step, but there’s no question Ricky Rubio’s frightening ankle injury just before halftime during Friday’s 112-103 overtime loss to the Orlando Magic left Timberwolves fans feeling cursed once again.
Almost a week to the exact hour after he signed a four-year, $55 million contract extension, Rubio badly rolled his left ankle on a drive to the basket that drew a foul with 2 minutes, 28 seconds left in the second quarter but also left him on the floor underneath the basket in agony.
X-rays taken immediately showed no fracture, but Rubio made his way back to the locker room at halftime on crutches with his ankle wrapped. The team called it a sprain and said he will be re-evaluated Saturday for a troublesome injury that could sideline him for weeks.
Coach Flip Saunders referred to Rubio’s ankle by saying he “popped it pretty good,” adding “it swelled up high” and said he always worries about such an injury being the dreaded, slow-healing high-ankle sprain.
Teammate Mo Williams called serious ankle sprains “the worst” while he and other teammates talked about pushing on without their starting point guard and spiritual leader for the immediate future.
“That’s basketball,” Wolves center Nikola Pekovic said. “If you ask me how to protect this, you can’t protect it. It just happens. You can do whatever, but it just happened. That’s the game, you know? You never know what’s going to happen. You can just wish him a fast recovery. That’s all we can do.”
The Wolves led by five points after the Magic summoned Anthony Bennett off the bench to shoot — and make — the free throws Rubio couldn’t take. They still led by three points after three quarters and by two points with 24 seconds left when the Magic triple-teamed Wolves veteran Kevin Martin and stripped him of the ball before he or the Wolves could call one of their remaining timeouts.
The Magic eventually transformed that turnover into two free throws that tied the score with 12 seconds left and Martin’s open 17-foot jumper as time expired missed, forcing an overtime during which Orlando scored 16 of the first 22 points.
Saunders rode his veteran players down the fourth-quarter stretch and into overtime, opting for Corey Brewer over rookie Andrew Wiggins in those final 5 minutes after Orlando’s Tobias Harris outrebounded Wiggins 16-3 in a small-forward matchup.
Rubio’s injury comes at a time when the Wolves — now 2-3 to start this young season — and their offense was just starting, in Saunders’ words, to “click.”
“That’s the tough part of it,” Brewer said. “We’re playing well. We could easily be 4-1 right now.”
Eventually, the Wolves ran out of energy and what Saunders called “juice” on Friday.
“There’s no question it was like someone kind of popped a balloon when Ricky got hurt,” Saunders said. “Ricky’s been our leader, the heart of our team and when he got hurt, we just didn’t have the same juice.”
With Rubio out, Saunders called upon Williams to play with his starters and needed little-used rookie Zach LaVine for nearly 8 ½ second-half minutes to spell Williams. Unless they make a roster move, the Wolves must rely on those two as their point guards after they chose to keep rookie forward Glenn Robinson III over J.J. Barea with their final roster cut.
“It’s going to be tough, man,” Brewer said. “It looks like we have to come together. Everybody’s got to put in extra. It’s got to be effort from all the guys, even the bench guys. Now Zach LaVine’s going to get his chance. He’s going to have to prove himself. It’s going to be tough, but he’s been working his butt off and Mo’s going to have to carry a load. Hopefully, we can hold it down ’til Ricky gets back.”