Nobody has been happy with how Ricky Rubio has played for most of this season, and that includes Rubio himself.
Amid his struggles, and the struggles of the Timberwolves, Rubio said he has tried not to lose his "spirit," and the same goes for the team around him.
Everyone had a reason to smile Sunday as Rubio played one of his best games of the season in helping the Wolves hang on for a 116-112 victory over Toronto in Tampa, Fla. It was the Wolves' first road victory over the Raptors in 17 tries, even if the game wasn't played north of the border.
"I know my game hasn't been what I expect and I'm the first one who will be judgmental with that," Rubio said. "But I know it's a process, and you've got to trust it. It takes time and this group really helped me as well when things weren't going my way to keep the spirit up. That's really important."
Rubio had 16 points and five assists and made four three-pointers on eight attempts — after entering Sunday with only eight made threes all season. He also sparked a defining 7-0 Wolves run in the fourth quarter with a three and two assists to Jarred Vanderbilt (12 points, seven rebounds), helping the Wolves build a 105-98 lead they would hold on to despite nearly giving the game away late.
The Wolves clung to a 114-112 lead as Karl-Anthony Towns was out with six fouls, but Malik Beasley stepped out of bounds following an inbounds pass, giving Toronto a chance to tie or take the lead with 11.6 seconds left. But Pascal Siakam's layup attempt went down and back out, and Jordan McLaughlin iced the game at the free-throw line for the Wolves, who have seen such endings go the other way too many times this season.
For once, the Wolves — who got 20 points each from Towns and Beasley — staved off disaster. Rubio said the weight of losing might have crushed other teams he has been on, but this one has held it together.
"When we lose, we don't lose our spirit and that's very important to build something special, to build something from scratch," Rubio said.
The veteran point guard added that losing stinks and that no one wants to lose all the time, but he then said, "I think we have learned how to really learn from our losses."
That optimistic approach has been something Rubio has had to keep in mind for himself as he has looked out of sorts most of the season. He was shooting just 20% from three-point range and 35% overall entering Sunday and hasn't looked like himself often. He said the young players on the team have helped with that, especially Anthony Edwards, who had 18 points on 7-for-15 shooting.
"It really helped me in pushing me to get the best out of me," Rubio said. "That's how we help each other. This is a team and when things aren't going our way, we have each other's back."
It's a role Edwards relishes playing.
"I feel like it's my job to keep the spirit around because everybody's older than me and I feel like I'm the life of the team," Edwards said. "I come into practice happy, loud every day because I'm young. I got so much energy."
The No. 1 overall pick in last year's NBA draft said specifically he has tried to build up players who are struggling with shooting such as Josh Okogie, Vanderbilt and Rubio in the hopes his confidence in them rubs off.
"I try to give everybody as much confidence as I can," Edwards said. "If I believe in you so much, you won't want to let me down or let the team down."
Added Rubio: "[They are] passing me the ball every time I'm open and that helps."
Rubio played one of his best games, and the Wolves beat an Eastern Conference playoff contender. Those two things likely aren't coincidental.
"He's proven it throughout his career, he just makes things happen," Towns said. "People just win with him."
When he has games like Sunday, that is.
The Star Tribune did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews after the game.