Welcome back, Ricky Rubio.
That was the sentiment after Minnesota’s 120-110 victory over New Orleans on Saturday. Sure, Rubio was traded back to the Timberwolves on draft night in November, and he had already played 12 games with Minnesota this season prior to Saturday. Still, that victory felt like the Spaniard’s homecoming to where his NBA career started.
Because the guard wearing No. 9 in the Timberwolves jersey Saturday, that was Ricky Rubio. He scored nine points to go with seven assists and seven rebounds, conducting a Wolves offense that shared the ball and played with pace.
Rubio’s mission Saturday was simple: “Trying to be me.”
He hadn’t looked like himself early this season. Rubio’s strength is controlling the game and tempo, determining when to push and when to get certain players shots. It’s hard for him to do that when he’s not starting, and playing off the ball when sharing the floor with D’Angelo Russell.
“Whatever the team needs (I’ll do), and if it’s playing off the ball, it’s going to take some time,” Rubio said. “Because I have to learn and I have to know my teammates better and know my game and how to play off the ball. It’s a challenge, and it takes you to uncomfortable zones. But it’s a learning process. You don’t learn something from one day to another. It’s step by step. Sometimes even a step backwards to make two ahead.”
He’s still in the midst of that learning process. But Saturday, with Russell out and Rubio in the starting lineup as the sole point guard, he was in his element.
“Yeah,” he said, “tonight, it felt good to have the ball in my hands and control the tempo of the game.”
Ricky Rubio could play like Ricky Rubio.
“I think I wasn’t (myself) in the beginning (of the season). I was trying to find myself, and I forgot who I was,” Rubio said. “I think tonight kind of showed what I can do, where I can get others involved.”
He did that Saturday. Naz Reid scored 20 points, Jarred Vanderbilt had 16. All five starters finished with nine-plus points. Six players scored in double figures.
Some of that is finding guys in the right spots where they can succeed, and some of it is playing with tempo. The Timberwolves played with a pace of 108 possessions Saturday — a blistering speed that would lead the league over the course of a season. Rubio and Jordan McLaughlin were running at every opportunity.
“I think playing in a fast tempo game, you’ve gotta really know what are you doing. But at the same time, it fuels us,” Rubio said. “I think it’s great for a young team, athletic as we are, playing that fast pace that we can play a lot of games that way and enjoy.”
It was certainly enjoyable to watch Minnesota play Saturday, which is something that could rarely be said this season. Not only were the Wolves losing, but they were doing so by playing ugly basketball. That was not the case against New Orleans. It’s rarely the case when Rubio is running a show.
“I think we have good players, talented players, but we have to come all on the same page. It’s a team sport,” Rubio said. “If you go out there and try to do it by your own, one night it can happen and you can get hot, but down the road when you finish the season, 72 games, you’re not going to be happy as a team. Playing the right way like we did tonight, we’re gonna be here in May, or whenever the season ends, being happy.”