Rubio is back, wins are not

Published 1:29 am Friday, March 8, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — The balance Ricky Rubio is trying to strike as this difficult Minnesota Timberwolves season heads into its final month isn’t really a balance at all.

On one side, Rubio’s surgically repaired left knee is finally back to normal, and the sizzle in his game has returned right along with it. The behind-the-back passes, the uncanny defensive instincts, the boundless energy that made him a rookie sensation last year. They’re all there again as he approaches the one-year anniversary of his torn ACL.

On the other side, the victories have not returned with Rubio’s game. And for the Spanish point guard who has won at every level he’s played in his young career, the lack of team success has been more painful and frustrating than the long, slow rehabilitation process he has completed.

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“I miss winning so bad,” Rubio said after a rare victory, this one over the Washington Wizards. “I just want to win every night. I know it’s hard and you can’t do it. Even Miami can’t do it every night. But I miss that feeling so bad.”

The Timberwolves have watched a once-promising season sunk by a slew of injuries, leaving them tied for the fewest wins in the Western Conference. The losing is a new experience for Rubio, who never had a record worse than 23-11 in six seasons playing in Spain’s prestigious ACB league.

In Rubio’s final five seasons of Spanish league play, his teams lost a total of 40 games. The Wolves have lost 37 already this season, including 22 of the last 27.

“It’s tough,” Rubio said last week. “I was talking to my dad and I was like, ‘I’ve never lost so many games in a season and I’ve lost more games in the last month than all my life, I think.’ I’m not going to get used to it. We have to change.”

So many players have walked into the Timberwolves’ locker room over the last six or seven years and have been worn down by the losing. A glazed look washes over their faces and they become resigned to their fate.

Not Rubio.

As they have faded from contention over the last month, his play has become even more determined. He is averaging 13.5 points, 9.8 assists and 3.2 steals in the last 13 games. He has 43 steals in the last 10 games, the highest 10-game total since Ron Artest in 2002.

And it’s not just the stats. He’s played more than 36 minutes in eight of the last 13 games for a team that has been playing with just nine healthy players. In the face of deficiencies in talent and manpower, Rubio has been unyielding. He continues to push the pace relentlessly and dive on the floor for loose balls as he tries to set a tone for the rest of a tired team.

He’s also averaging 4.1 turnovers over the last 13 games, a sign that coach Rick Adelman thinks shows that sometimes he tries to do a little too much.

“He’s just trying to do everything,” Adelman said. “He really wants to win. Hopefully it rubs off on everybody else.”

With the postseason no longer an option, that’s the best Rubio can do. He hopes to get his friend Kevin Love, another player who hasn’t gotten comfortable with losing, back in the next couple of weeks. Then the two of them can work toward establishing a different attitude in Minnesota.

Rubio got plenty of attention last week during a game in Los Angeles when he told a downtrodden Alexey Shved to “change this face. Be happy. Enjoy!” He is at the same time trying to lift his teammates’ spirits and instill in them an aversion to losing.

“We feed off of him,” Wolves forward Derrick Williams said. “We all look to him. Your point guard is supposed to be your leader. He’s really taken that role and run with it. We’re following his lead.”

And it’s not just on the court. After the Wolves lost a home game to the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 1, Rubio sat sullen in his locker, unable to put a smile on his normally sunny face.

“It’s definitely the worst,” he said then. “I don’t know how to say, how to feel after losing that many games. We play hard every night, but if you keep losing it’s hard. We have to change our mentality and be more aggressive in the first minutes.”

Losing is supposed to sting like that. It’s supposed to leave a mark. It does for Rubio.

The playoffs are long gone for these Wolves, but Rubio isn’t giving in. He’s going to spend the rest of the season continuing to get himself back to where he was before the knee injury, which happened a year ago this Saturday.

He’ll also spend it finding out just who on this team is willing to follow him.

“Even if we’re losing,” Rubio said, “we have to show everybody that we want to win.”