The holiday season wrapping up now is all about a spirit of giving, even if Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio found himself in a taking mood much of December.
He has 32 steals in his past nine games, since a Dec. 16 game at New York that followed what interim head coach Sam Mitchell the night before called the season’s most disappointing loss to Denver at home.
He had as many steals as turnovers — 43 — in all of December and had eight steals in that game against the Knicks, five against Indiana a week ago and four in Monday’s game at San Antonio.
He attributes much of that simply to good health finally, after a severe ankle injury waylaid his season a year ago and lingered in some ways into the start of this season.
“I feel good physically, so I can gamble a little bit more,” he said. “I mean, I was out for a long time last season and I finally get the feeling of the game back. So I feel pretty good. It’s a matter of being in good position and gamble sometimes.”
Mitchell is the kind of fellow who doesn’t always seem convinced about such statistics and cautions against the use and concept of that ‘G’ word, even if Rubio has the quickness, reach and desire to do so.
“You have to be careful about steals because that’s not necessarily a great stat,” Mitchell said. “It depends on how you get them and when you get them. There have been teams that lead the league in steals but have been the worst team stats-wise defensively. We don’t preach that. We don’t want our guys actively out there looking for steals.
“If the opportunity presents itself, but you have to be awfully sure because 50-50 is not a good chance if you go for a steal. You have to be 90 percent because if you don’t get it, you open up the defense.”
That’s why Mitchell prefers Rubio dial back his gambling instincts and defend more fundamentally on a team that Mitchell deems, even with Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng, lacks a true shotblocker such as Utah’s Rudy Gobert or Miami’s Hassan Whiteside.
“We’re still trying to break some habits,” Mitchell said when asked if he’s trying to get Rubio to gamble less. “We’re changing how we do a lot of things. We’re trying to rein guys in with certain habits they have. It’s something we continue to talk to Ricky about and show him on film. You don’t want a guy not to be aggressive, but you have to be careful running around looking for steals all the time.
“It just puts too much pressure on your defense when you don’t get them.”
But now that Rubio’s left ankle is healed and he has his mobility and confidence in his body back …
“Yeah, a little bit,” he said when asked if his instincts to steal the ball take over now that he’s healthy again. “You have to know where they [opponents] are and you have to know what they like to do and then you have to get there.”
And that requires study. On Tuesday night, Rubio watched Detroit’s game against New York even though the Wolves played Utah on Wednesday before they met the Pistons on Thursday night in Detroit. He said he was already familiar with Pistons guards Reggie Jackson and Brandon Jennings two days ahead.
“I watch basketball all the time on TV, a lot of basketball,” Rubio said. “Every chance I have, I watch teams and I know how they’re playing. You’ve got to love this game to watch that much basketball, but at the end of the day it’s going to help you. I love basketball.”