Ricky Rubio hasn't been around the NBA one full circle yet, but he has been around the proverbial block, from the Olympic gold medal game to six professional seasons spent in Europe.
After getting another good look at Kobe Bryant on Sunday, the Timberwolves rookie was ready to make a declaration after playing only his 20th NBA game, a 106-101 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I mean, I don't know if he's the best or not," Rubio said after the game. "But in the last quarter? For sure. I mean, for 48 minutes there are players like LeBron [James] and Derrick Rose who can be in that top position. But in the end of the game, he's the best."
Rubio faced Bryant in the final of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in a 2010 exhibition his Barcelona team played at home against the Lakers. On Sunday, he got his first NBA gander at a guy who has won five championships, and Bryant didn't disappoint either Rubio or a festive Target Center crowd that came to cheer him and the previously struggling Lakers as much as they did the home team.
The Lakers came to town fresh from Saturday night's loss at Milwaukee, a loss that dropped them to 1-7 on the road while extending a franchise-record streak of 13 consecutive games in which they didn't score 100 points.
Until Sunday, they had only won that one time on the road, at Utah on Jan. 11. Until Sunday, they hadn't scored 100 points since beating Houston on Jan. 3.
They rectified all that, at least for a night, by beating a Wolves team that ultimately had no answer for All-Star forward Pau Gasol's scoring early, or for big Andrew Bynum's physical presence and Bryant's sheer will late.
Oh, the Wolves tried. Kevin Love produced another double-double with 33 points and 13 rebounds, and they committed a season-low four turnovers. They approached reaching .500 this late in the season for the first time since 2006-07, then watched it slip away.
Down 18 in the third quarter, the Wolves threw a little-used zone defense on Los Angeles and produced a 19-6 run that got them back running and back into the game.
But Bryant's 35-point, 14-rebound night made sure all of that wasn't quite enough.
Gasol's 28 points (16 in the first half) and Bynum's 21 points didn't hurt either, not against a Wolves team that played without ill Darko Milicic and used big Nikola Pekovic less than 20 minutes because of foul trouble.
"Thank God they took Pekovic out of the game," Bynum said.
The Wolves led twice briefly in the fourth quarter -- the last time at 94-93 with 3:19 left -- before watching the Lakers pull away for good by scoring eight unanswered points, including four in a row by that guy named Bryant.
"When you've got the best player in the world on your team ..." Wolves forward Michael Beasley lamented afterward.
Bryant's performance included nine fourth-quarter points on a night when both coaches pushed their players to the limit for the sake of a single victory: Wolves coach Rick Adelman played both Rubio and Love for the entire second half, while Lakers coach Mike Brown did the same with Bryant and Gasol.
"I just felt that's what needed to happen," Brown said. "We'll rest later."
The Lakers can rest Monday. The Wolves play at Houston, one night after they trailed the Lakers by eight points early, by 13 before halftime and by 18 midway through the third quarter.
"We have been a second-half team throughout this entire year," Love said. "We just have to come out in the first 24 minutes and replicate what we do out there in the second half."