PHOENIX – As headline news goes, Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio’s winning three-pointer just before Friday night’s final buzzer at Oklahoma City doesn’t quite rank up there with “Man Bites Dog” because it’s not like he has never done it before.
“When I was a kid,” he said. “Not lately.”
He remembers such shots as a child and then something similar again as a teenager. His catch-and-heave shot from half-court that forced overtime and delivered Spain a FIBA Under-16 championship in double overtime over Russia remains the stuff of legends a decade later.
It does so both because of Rubio’s 51-point, 24-rebound, 12-assist, seven-steal stat line that day and the stunning nature of his banked shot right at the buzzer. It came while the Russians still celebrated what they thought was a winning three-pointer of their own.
Rubio hopped and ran and was mobbed by teammates in August 2006, when he was 15. On Friday, Rubio reacted blankly, partly because two-tenths of a second still remained.
He walked away without reaction moments later while teammates emoted for him, celebrating both the Wolves’ first victory in Oklahoma City since Thanksgiving weekend 2008 and success for a player whose shooting struggles in the NBA have been well-documented.
Rubio gave two separate accounts for his reaction — or lack thereof — on Friday, telling FSN immediately after the game, “It’s great to win, but we should have done it more this season.” In the locker room later, he explained himself by saying, “Of course I’m happy, but I’m tired, too.”
He entered Friday’s game as a career 36.7 percent shooter — including 30.3 percent from three-point range this season — and consistently is a player on whom opposing defenses sag, challenging him to shoot.
Left alone on the left wing while the Thunder defense collapsed on Andrew Wiggins driving to the basket, Rubio’s winning shot was his third three-pointer of the night.
It also was payoff for hours and hours spent in the gym, working both with assistant coach Ryan Saunders daily and periodically with shooting coach Mike Penberthy.
Watching from the Wolves bench, Gorgui Dieng later said he started leaping even before Rubio released the ball after he received Wiggins’ pass from under the basket.
“People can doubt him,” Dieng said. “They can say whatever they want about players because opinion is the cheapest thing in the world and everybody has one. If you’re a pro athlete, you can’t worry about what people say. You just have to block it out and play hard. He’s a great leader and he’s helping this basketball team. Before he shot it, I started jumping. He has been working on his shot every day in the gym and everybody knows how better he got now.”
Karl-Anthony Towns said he has watched Rubio shoot that shot he made Friday and many, many others — “Constantly,” Towns said — before practice, after practice and in the gym alone at night all season.
“I’ve been working on the shot a lot,” Rubio said. “It feels good to see the results. It’s something I know I’ve been struggling with a little bit, but I feel more confident lately.”
He had made a clutch three-pointer for the Wolves before, stepping up after missing all night and making one with 20 seconds left that led to Kevin Love’s game-winning three at the buzzer against the Clippers in Los Angeles in January 2012.
“But I think was 0-for-10 that game,” Rubio said. “I already had two or three [three-pointers on Friday]. I remember that game. That’s the kind of shot that gives you confidence.”
While Rubio has struggled to shoot consistently, Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell said he never has lost faith in a point guard who does everything else for his team.
“Ricky’s never been a disappointment for me because he plays so hard,” Mitchell said. “He plays so intelligently. He gets us into our offense. He’s a great team defender. He just plays so hard every night. The mistakes Ricky makes or the shots he misses, we live with that. That shot he made, that’s something Ricky works on. He works on his shooting every single day.
“For somebody to make the game-winner, I’m proud of Ricky. He deserved it. He’s been working his tail off.”