MIAMI – The Timberwolves’ season after just five games morphed from the present to the future when starting point guard Ricky Rubio fell clutching his left ankle in pain Friday night in Orlando.
Now it goes forward presumably with the ball substantially in the hands of rookie Zach LaVine.
Barely playing in the season’s first five games until Rubio went down, LaVine started his first NBA game Saturday. He delivered a 25-minute, five-point, six-rebound, four-assist, two-turnover and one-steal performance in 102-92 loss at Miami.
“Solid,” LaVine said afterward, evaluating his night.
He now steps forward into what coach Flip Saunders called the “bright lights of the stage” because of a decision Saunders the GM made two weeks ago to keep rookie Glenn Robinson III and waive third point guard J.J. Barea. It’s a decision Saunders said the team will stick with for now because signing another point guard while Rubio is out injured these coming weeks would require trading or releasing a player currently on the roster.
LaVine also steps forward into those lights because Saunders decided, at least for now, that LaVine will fare best surrounded by veteran starters and that the best way to keep veteran guard Mo Williams fresh all season is by keeping him with the second unit and limiting his playing time to around 25 minutes a night.
The Wolves fell behind 25-9 Saturday with their reconfigured starting lineup on the floor but recovered in the fourth quarter. That’s when they closed to within four points three different times while Williams played the entire quarter and finished the game with the starters.
And so life now goes without Rubio for the Wolves, who on Saturday became the first NBA team since Atlanta with Josh Smith and Marvin Williams in 2005 to start two teenagers (rookie Andrew Wiggins the other) in a game.
By turning to LaVine now in this situation, Saunders also is investing in a rookie during a season he repeatedly refers to as “developmental.” LaVine still is learning to play the point-guard position at the game’s highest level. He has started as many NBA games as he did during his lone season at UCLA a year ago.
“I can’t really explain it right now, it’s different, it’s tough,” Wolves veteran guard Kevin Martin said when asked how a team tries to rediscover its rhythm without Rubio. “We have to figure something out. It’s going to be a long, long process without him. Trust me, this [Saturday’s game] was just the start. We’re going to have to figure out something quick because the games they just keep coming and coming.
“The most pivotal position on the court is the point guard. That’s who runs the show. Zach did a great job. We have to realize he’s 19, but he played well. We have to find some chemistry with him and see how it goes.”
Martin averaged 25.8 points in his three previous games but was 0-for-4 from the field and scoreless through three quarters Saturday before he made consecutive three-pointers and scored all eight of his points in the Wolves’ fourth-quarter comeback attempt.
Martin, Williams and Saunders all praised LaVine’s play Saturday — provided without the benefit of a practice to prepare for his new role — and Saunders said he thought about putting LaVine back in the game late but decided to stay with Williams because of that fourth-quarter run.
“He handled the pressure, he made some plays, he rebounded really well,” Saunders said of LaVine. “He definitely didn’t shy away, that’s a positive. … As Zach gets more comfortable, he brings you great pace in the game. As he gets more comfortable giving you pace and becoming a decisionmaker, his minutes might get extended. I didn’t want to give him too much, too quick and overload him too much.”
Lavine called his performance a balancing act, between using his speed and athleticism to push both the ball and the game’s pace while he still tried to organize and run an offense that was just starting to hum when Rubio got hurt.
He said he benefited from Saunders’ decision to play him alongside Martin, Thaddeus Young and Nikola Pekovic.
“It definitely helps for the first game to have that veteran leadership to calm you down, to tell you where to go, to do this, do that,” LaVine said. “So that helps. … You’ve got to trust it, and you’ve got to earn your trust. I feel like we’ve got a lot of trust already. Everyone’s got everyone’s back. Obviously the starters, they haven’t played with me that much. I’m just going to try to do what Ricky was doing. You can’t really replace somebody like that, his instincts. I’m going to have to play my game as well.”
LaVine said Rubio gave him “little tips” before Saturday’s game and mentioned more detailed instruction he received from Saunders, a former point guard himself.
“He said, ‘Play your game, play smart, play within yourself, just try to control the tempo and control the team,’ ” LaVine said. “And he said don’t hurt yourself, that’s the big thing.”