Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks saw Ricky Rubio with his own two eyes about an hour before tipoff Monday night. Until that moment, he only had heard about the Timberwolves rookie point guard.
"I saw him for the first time and it was like, 'He is real,' " Brooks said, smiling. "Like a folk hero."
The Rubio hype finally gave way to Rubio reality in the Wolves season opener at Target Center, and the 21-year-old Spaniard made quite a first impression.
Rubio came off the bench to record six assists, six points and five rebounds with no turnovers in a 104-100 loss to the Thunder, arguably the NBA's best team.
Rubio piloted the fast break with precision, set up teammates for easy baskets and showed some of the flair that made him a YouTube sensation while Wolves fans patiently awaited his arrival for two years.
More than anything, Rubio looked like he belonged. He looked comfortable on the court. He looked ready for this new challenge.
The Wolves played hard and gave their fans reason to believe that better days lie ahead. It was Rubio, however, who created the biggest buzz on opening night.
"We lost so you can't be 100 percent happy," Rubio said. "But I feel like I helped the team."
Rubio looked as good as advertised in his debut, which might have been the most impressive thing about his performance because of all the speculation and hype that preceded it. Nobody walked out of Target Center disappointed in what they witnessed from him.
Yes, it's only one game and Rubio still has to prove himself on a nightly basis. We still don't know how he'll hold up physically in the grind of an NBA season. He also has to show that he can handle himself defensively against the league's top point guards.
But boy is he fun to watch, especially running the fast break. The most telling aspect of Rubio's debut is that he made a meaningful impact while attempting only three shots. He left fans buzzing with his no-look passes and overall court awareness and vision.
Rubio is the classic pass-first point guard. He rarely looks to create his own shot and even turned down a few open looks in order to set up teammates.
He had assists on three consecutive baskets -- two on fast breaks -- in a second-quarter flurry. He brought the crowd to its feet again with a bounce pass off the dribble to Anthony Randolph in transition. That gave Rubio four assists in his first nine minutes of NBA action.
His best pass came early in the fourth quarter when he threaded another bounce pass through traffic to fellow rookie Derrick Williams for a reverse dunk that gave the Wolves a one-point lead.
"He really sees the floor," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. "He competes at both ends of the court. We just have to give him a little bit of time to work his way in. It's going to be an up-and-down situation for him. All rookies face that. He seems to have an awful lot of hype going his way, but I don't see him buying into that. I just see him as a young man who really wants to learn, really wants to do well."
Adelman decided to bring Rubio off the bench and start Luke Ridnour, but for how long? The Wolves clearly don't want to rush things with Rubio, but he was on the court in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
Rubio took a charge late in the quarter and followed that with a 15-foot jumper. And he had the ball in his hands with less than 20 seconds left and the Wolves trailing by two. That says a lot about the coaching staff's faith in him.
The Wolves couldn't close the deal, but they had to feel encouraged by many things from their performance. Rubio's effort ranked near the top of that list.
Adelman stood outside the locker room before the game and sounded as curious as everyone else about what he would see in the opener. He was talking about his entire team, but his sentiment certainly applied to Rubio specifically.
The rookie point guard provided some answers, optimism and entertaining basketball.
Some might even say it was worth the wait.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org