Rubio, Westbrook set for point guard style clash at Target Center

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 20, 2012 - 8:35 AM

Ricky Rubio's popularity proves that the wily, pass-first point guard still has a niche, even though big, athletic, shoot-first floor leaders are the show-stoppers in today's ever-evolving NBA.

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Minnesota's Ricky Rubio charged past Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook last season at Target Center.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio chose his position and perhaps his purpose in life long ago partly because of something Magic Johnson once said, a line about how scoring a basket makes one guy happy but distributing an assist makes two guys happy. ¶ Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook has not been known to quote Magic as often. ¶ The young point guards face each other Thursday night at Target Center in a 6 p.m. TNT game that is a melding of rare talents and productivity, but a clash of point-guard styles and philosophies as well.

Rubio is, if you will, old school, the heir apparent to carry on a long tradition of facilitators that runs through guys named Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, John Stockton and the aforementioned Magic all the way back to Boston's Bob Cousy in the 1950s.

Westbrook is at the forefront of the new breed of "scoring point guards," a growing list of influential ballhandlers who have transformed a game that once belonged to the big man by creating as much for themselves as they do others.

"It's a point guard's game now, really," Timberwolves assistant coach Terry Porter said. "When I played, you had one big guy after another and even on teams that didn't have a bona-fide star, they had at least two or three 7-footers."

In Portland, Porter played the point alongside big Kevin Duckworth in a league where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Karl Malone and many other big men worked around the basket nightly.

But the game has long since changed, modified by the impact of the three-point line, rule changes that now ensure guards can move as they wish unimpeded and the evolution of the big man from low-post scorer to three-point shooter.

Mention the term "stretch 4" -- a three-point shooting big man such as Europeans Dirk Nowitzki and Andrea Bargnani or homegrown Kevin Love -- 20 years ago and basketball old-timers would figure you're talking about a power forward with a tight back.

The influence a guy named Michael Jordan had on future generations who wanted to run and dunk and score just like Mike didn't hurt any, either.

"The three-point line has discredited the value of the big guy," Denver coach George Karl said. "You don't post up now, you penetrate to get to the paint. There's no question the rules of the game have made the point guard so valuable."

Changing game

Wolves coach Rick Adelman had five point guards -- Porter, Stockton, Magic Johnson, Kevin Johnson and Tim Hardaway -- on the West team he led in the 1991 NBA All-Star game, but even a group like that didn't have the collective clout as today's point guards.

He attributes that to rules that don't allow defenders to place a hand on driving guards and on officiating that doesn't call illegal screens like it once did.

"The league is a pick-and-roll league now, and it didn't used to be," Adelman said. "It gives the point guard more of an opportunity to really become an impact player. They used to be secondary and maybe they got assists. Now he scores, he gets assists, he does everything."

The game always has had its share of gifted point guards. Golden State coach Mark Jackson ticks off a long list of the famous and the underrated (Gary Payton, Hardaway, Rod Strickland, Derek Harper, Dennis Johnson) from when he played back in the proverbial day, without even mentioning himself.

"I don't think it's fair to compare because there's always been a lot of great ones," Jackson said, "but this group is special."

It is special in its sheer growing numbers and in the evolution of bigger, stronger, quicker players such as Westbrook, Chicago's Derrick Rose and Boston's Rajon Rondo, players whom Sacramento coach Keith Smart considers more like football running backs and receivers than your traditional 6-foot point guard.

"It's the depth, and it has happened so quickly," Karl said. "Five, seven, eight years ago, you had maybe 10 or 11 guys you liked. Now that list is 20 to maybe 25. Every night it seems like there's somebody. There's 25 guys in this league who you think are going to be really good and then you have guys like Nash and Andre Miller and Kidd who are still hanging on and can still deliver wins."

The new guys

Rubio, Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, Houston's Jeremy Lin and Portland rookie Damian Lillard are among the newest of the new breed. Each has arrived in the past two years, surfing a wave of young point guards such as Mike Conley, Ty Lawson, Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, John Wall and Steph Curry, who came just before them and joined established All-Stars Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Kidd and Nash.

"It's cyclical," Nash said. "The game used to be dominated by '2' guards [shooting guards such as Jordan and Kobe Bryant] in a way. Now there are not that many classic '2' guards. The game's always changing, always evolving."

Irving grew up wanting to be part creator like Magic, part scorer like Detroit Pistons great Isiah Thomas, even though both players' best days were gone by the time Irving was born in 1992.

He ended up being his own unstoppable self, all at the tender age of 20.

"Once I got a little taller, I could incorporate both their games into my game," Irving said. "Young guys do that all the time. It's part of basketball. The game just moves on; it always has. It'll be amazing to see how the league is in another five years."

RUSSELL WESTBROOK

He'll call his own number a lot as he runs the show for the Thunder.

RICKY RUBIO

Court vision and sleight-of-hand passing make him the consummate entertainer.

  • WOLVES VS. OKLAHOMA CITY • 6 p.m. today • Target Center • TV: TNT (830-AM)

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