A professional since he was 14, Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio has played basketball seemingly all his life and in all that time, he only really has played one way.
With the ball in his hands, free to create for others and sometimes even himself.
A month ago after a lopsided loss in New Orleans, he declared himself temporarily lost. He did so while recovering from a sprained elbow and while adapting to a new coach and a new offensive system in which young star Andrew Wiggins now often ends up with the ball in his hands, particularly in fourth quarters when the outcome is in doubt.
After Monday’s 115-108 victory over Phoenix at Target Center, Rubio called himself growing more comfortable in a system where he now often is in a corner without the ball so Wiggins can use his size and scoring ability to create mismatches both near the rim and far from it.
“I’m learning the system, I’m learning a new way to play,” Rubio said. “But at the end of the day, I have to play my game. I’m feeling more comfortable now. I try to give this team the experience I have to close out the game.”
A month ago, Rubio went 2-for-19 from the field during a four-game stretch in which the Wolves beat Philadelphia — their last home victory before beating the Suns on Monday — and then lost three consecutive games.
After that third consecutive loss in New Orleans, Rubio said, “I don’t feel like myself, I have to find myself” as he healed from that injured elbow and learned that new system.
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau praised Rubio for Monday’s 12-assist, eight-point, three-rebound, two-steal game in which he did what he does best while also deferring to Wiggins’ ball-handling and playmaking late in the game. Rubio often controlled the game at both ends, using his vision and his passing to find Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Karl-Anthony Towns ahead of the play.
“He played a great game, he really did,” Thibodeau said. “His vision is special, his decisionmaking. He got us running the floor. Ricky has been a good player in this league for a long time.”
Rubio’s game Monday was the kind of infectiously energetic performance loyal Wolves watchers recognize and remember.
Thibodeau was asked if Rubio is adapting to his system or if he is adapting his system to things Rubio does well.
“I don’t know, chicken and the egg, I guess,” Thibodeau said. “There are always going to be ups and downs and not just him, our entire team. We’re working our way through things and so we have to continue to strive to do things the right way each and every day.”
By putting the ball in Wiggins’ hands late in games, Thibodeau addresses this question: Can you win in the NBA with the ball in the hands of a point guard who’s not a shooting and scoring threat?
A week ago, Rubio, who is averaging 7.0 points, 6.9 assists and two steals per game while shooting 36 percent, was asked about playing without the ball in his hands and he said, “I’ve got to learn. It’s part of the process. I’ve just got to learn.”
After Monday’s game, he said this when asked about learning a new way to play, “Ups and downs. It’s hard. Thibs has shown he is a coach who has been winning in this league for a long time. We just have to keep trusting the process. Sometimes losses come and it’s hard. We have to stick together. This is a team and we have to do it as a team.
“That’s what I’m learning. That’s a new way. Whatever it takes to win, that’s what I’m going to do.”