LOS ANGELES - Given their season so far, it's probably fitting that on the same day the Timberwolves received important, encouraging injury news, they took one step back on that front, too.
Ricky Rubio's knee surgeon Wednesday cleared him to participate with no limitations in contact practices, a decision that could have the precocious point guard back playing games by the second week of December.
That same night, however, starting small forward Andrei Kirilenko missed a game against the Clippers because of back spasms that bothered him since Saturday's game at Golden State and worsened after he played 41 minutes in Monday's victory at Sacramento. Veteran Josh Howard started for him at small forward.
Rubio hasn't played since he tore his ACL and lateral collateral ligament near the end of a March 9 game against the Lakers. He underwent surgery in Vail, Colo., on March 21, the start of an eight-month rehabilitation process that included several return visits to Colorado for checkups.
His latest visit this week brought clearance from Dr. Richard Steadman that it's time for Rubio to really go back to work.
"Certainly it gives us hope that if he can play at the level he was, then suddenly we're a much better team than we were," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said.
Adelman was careful not to put a timeline on when Rubio might play his first game. But he did mention a schedule that gives Rubio three practice days next week and three or four the week after. That would put a return right around a Dec. 12 game against Denver at Target Center.
"Ricky is going to have to come back and allowed to be himself," said teammate Kevin Love, who's just back from injury himself. "He might be a step slow. Like me, he'll probably need to get his legs underneath him. But he'll get better. He has worked extremely hard to get to where he is now. We're excited to have some good news."
Kirilenko, however, walked carefully because of a stiff back around the Wolves locker room in a sport coat and jeans before the game.
Adelman said Kirilenko played the entire second half Monday because both of them were concerned his back would stiffen and he'd be done for the night if he came out of the game.
"All this will pass," said Kirilenko, who said he has the same condition every year and it usually takes six, seven days to resolve itself. "Before the age of 25, I never show up in a treatment room. Twenty-five, you start going there and 30, you're always there."
Like a boy scout
Howard kept talking to Derrick Williams on the bench when he didn't play a second in three of the past four games entering Wednesday night. Howard has told the former No. 2 overall pick to remain patient.
Williams didn't play in Tuesday's victory at Sacramento because Adelman shortened his rotation and played to win, but did play 11 minutes -- scoring 10 points, with two three-pointers -- Saturday at Golden State.
"Just stay focused, stay ready," Howard said about his message. "I've been in his position before, try to tell him to live off the good, all the positive things he has done and don't think nothing's wrong. I went through it my first five, six months in the league and once I figured it out, the sky was the limit after that.
"It's a tough league, over 300 guys out here who can do the same thing you can do. Do what you can do and go out there and execute. You've just got to be ready, at any time."