I’m in agreement with the Wolves’ plan to protect Ricky Rubio’s ankle by limiting his minutes.
They should hardly ever play him more than 48.
Asked whether his team hit a “lull’’ when Rubio was on the sideline, Wolves coach Flip Saunders said, “Yeah — we had one for 46 games.’’
Wednesday night, Rubio played a real game on the Target Center court for the first time in months. He played 23 minutes. He had nine assists. The Wolves beat Miami 102-101 as the Heat, in the fourth quarter, pulled off a killer impersonation of a drunk falling down stairs in the dark.
With Rubio acting as the offensive and defensive head of the snake, the Wolves, for a night, looked more cobra than garter.
“He’s Ricky,’’ said shooting guard Kevin Martin. “He’s good at what he does.’’
Rubio is such a deft passer, he even found a way to get Anthony Bennett a bucket.
Rubio was speed-dribbling down the right side of the court in the first quarter. Bennett was sprinting left. Rubio whipped his head right, as if planning to throw a bullet pass to the beer vendor in the third row, when he simultaneously flung a long bounce pass that caught Bennett in full stride for a dunk. Surprisingly, Bennett didn’t dribble to the three-point line.
Wednesday night, that Rubio pass was more emblematic than unique.
In the first quarter, Rubio threw wrap-around bounce passes to cutters. He threw alley-oops. On an early possession, he leaped into the air while powering a bounce pass into Nikola Pekovic’s hands for a layup. “I’m excited just to come and watch Ricky play,’’ Saunders said.
Rubio hadn’t played in a game at Target Center since Nov. 1, during a one-point loss to Chicago. The team initially described his injury as an ankle sprain. When three months passed without Rubio’s return, someone cynical about team-described injuries questioned why a player would miss so much time with such a minor ailment.
The Timberwolves finally revealed that there was significant bone bruising and other damage in the ankle. There was no reason to withhold that information. Nobody, other than Timberwolves loyalists, cared, and the Wolves should cater to their loyalists as much as possible in these lean days.
What’s important is that Rubio is finally back, giving the Wolves intriguing consecutive games in Target Center for the first time in … oh, why test our long-term memories?
Saturday, the place was packed to watch LeBron James soar and Kevin Love fail and Andrew Wiggins ascend. Wednesday, the place was not-so-packed to watch Rubio reintroduce artistry to the loyalists.
The leaping bounce pass. The two-handed cross-court skip pass. The length-of-court lead soon to be known in Minnesota as The Teddy. The bounce pass wrapped around his defender that hit a cutter in stride. The simple-yet-too-often-absent entry pass to the post.
“He made a difference early, a difference late,’’ Saunders said. “With him on the floor we probably shot around 61 percent, and our defense is better. He puts good pressure on the ball, and they can’t set up their offense quite as much.’’
The Wolves aren’t good. They aren’t in the same cell-tower range as good. That’s why the architecture of this ugly season might prove ideal.
The last time the Wolves blatantly tanked, they asked Mark Madsen to shoot three-pointers. Eyes bled. Souls wept.
This time, the Wolves are losing while developing one of the NBA’s most promising players, Wiggins, and now he will get to learn how to play with Rubio, yet not matter how well they play they are unlikely to damage the team’s ability to land a high draft pick.
The Wolves could finish with close to the worst record in the league while providing entertainment on a nightly basis, with Rubio experimenting with fast-break geometry and Wiggins experimenting with life as a franchise player.
It could be worse at Target Center.
It has been worse. Frequently.
Ask the loyalists, who had a rare reason to stand and cheer Wednesday night.