SAN ANTONIO – Two games into a new season, with a new coach and a new system, late in a game at Sacramento, Ricky Rubio was pushed to the ground by the Kings’ Kosta Koufos. Then Rubio was kicked by Anthony Tolliver while bracing himself on the floor.
Just like that, two former Timberwolves had knocked Rubio out of action because of a sprained right elbow.
This was not how Rubio wanted this all to start.
After finishing Wolves practice Monday in a church gym in San Antonio, Rubio brought this up only to explain why things were so difficult for him then, and how much better they are for him now. The Wolves point guard missed only five games and less than two weeks before returning to action. But returning to 100 percent? That took a long, long time — way longer than he would have imagined.
“You start a season and you get hurt right away and you’re scared,” Rubio said. “You don’t want to put your arm in danger, be aggressive. You don’t gamble as much. I can’t count how many games it took. But it took time. But now I feel confident. I feel good.”
Rubio’s recent play reflects that. He has amassed 56 assists in his past four games, the most prolific such stretch in Wolves history. He has averaged 11.3 points, 14.0 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 3.0 steals in that stretch, which included a three-game winning streak that ended in Dallas on Sunday.
Rubio doesn’t keep track of numbers. He only knows how he feels — healthy and comfortable. He is aggressive on defense. He is getting both assists and points on offense and he is getting to the free-throw line, too, 23 times in all over the past four games.
“It’s hard to remember when I felt this confident,” he said. “I think this is the best two weeks of my NBA career. I’m more consistent, I would say. Maybe I’ve had better weeks before. But as a feeling? This is good.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau likes to say the game dictates your actions. He has allowed the offense to go through Rubio more often at crunch time rather than giving the ball yo Andrew Wiggins, but that won’t always be the case.
“With most teams, it will be in the primary scorer’s hands,” Thibodeau said. “It’s usually a pick-and-roll with the two primary scorers. But we want to have a balance with what we’re doing. So it depends where we are in the game, the plays that are most effective for us. … When it comes to the fourth quarter, it’s understanding what the defense is trying to do, the intensity, and the decisionmaking you have to have.”
Rubio has been very good at that in recent games.
Against Dallas on Jan. 9, he had 15 assists and 13 points, leading the way after the Mavericks had pulled within four late in the game. Wednesday against Houston, he tied his own franchise record with 17 assists, shining in particular in the third quarter. Rubio clearly outplayed Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook in the second half Friday.
While Rubio has struggled (0-for-8) with his three-point shot lately, he has shot 12-for-27 on two-pointers over the four-game stretch and has gotten to the line.
“Right now it’s the pullup I feel good with,” Rubio said. “And I’m getting to the line. I’ve always been good at getting to the line, but earlier in the season I wasn’t being as aggressive, maybe, because of my elbow. But now that I’m better, I’m attacking more.”
But it’s his ability to find teammates, in full flow, that has been most impressive.
“He’s seeing the floor at a different level right now,” Zach LaVine said. “He’s penetrating, and he’s seeing everyone. It’s been crazy.”
When it comes to crunch time, Rubio just wants to chance.
“The coach tries to win, he’s trying to find ways,” he said. “If he gives me the chance, I will do it.”
To Thibodeau, consistency is the most important thing.
“I think he’s playing better,” Thibodeau said. “Him being hurt early on was a setback. But now he’s healthy, and he’s making teams play him honestly. He’s making some shots, getting to the free-throw line. But he has to show the consistency, day after day, game after game.”
Said Rubio: “Right now, I like the system, I feel comfortable with the coach, I like my teammates. We just have to win more games. I think we’ve been doing better. But we want more.”