On March 9th, 2012, in the final minutes of a game against the Lakers, the current villains/laughing stock of the NBA, Ricky Rubio went down in heroic fashion attempting to draw a charge against Kobe Bryant, the goal per usual being to will his team to yet another surprising victory. As you all know, what happened in that game was a watershed moment for the remainder of the season, as the Wolves plummeted in the standings, in attendance, and in quality of play. To bring the memory full circle, here it is.
I was at this game, and like the rest of the arena was wearing a white t-shirt, deeply engaged in what should have been another Wolves win against a hated team during a period that can only be innocently described as magical for a fan base used to watching a team go through periods where a 3-7 stretch of ten games was considered a quality effort. But Rubio went down, and the crowd was reduced to dead silence. The Lakers then went on to win the game, and Rubio went on to rehab, while the fanbase went on to following other things. Then of course, David Kahn made several quality acquisitions which have done nothing but ease the short term loss of the new hero of Minneapolis, enabling the Wolves to start at a solid 13-11 clip, 6th in the ridiculously competitive Western Conference, despite blow after blow after blow after blow in terms of injuries. And you have to wonder, had Rubio stayed healthy the rest of last season, would the Wolves have had the kind of offseason they did this summer? It remains a burning "what-if?" question in my mind, and a testament to the fact that the symbolic sacrifice Rubio made, and the way the rest of the roster performed when he went down, was awake up call to team ownership.
Now, starting tonight, Ricky will be eased back into the lineup slowly over the next month, likely coming off the bench for awhile in limited minutes while some of the other hobbled players recover. This next quarter may be a growing one, but I have a feeling the back half of the year will be nothing short of spectacular. Ricky's impact on both ends of the floor will be felt immediately. The no-look passes, the random spurts of offense, the key steals. It is going to be fun to watch, but not without some growing pains. One of the things I have noticed about Ricky is he seems to be one of those guys that, no matter what he does, completely captures the crowd. What is it about him?: Ricky could throw a pick and roll bounce pass to Pekovic streaking down the lane and the crowd would go absolutely wild. Minutes later, Luke Ridnour could complete the exact same play in the exact same fashion in the exact same style and the crowd could have no reaction. And how can you not love that as a fan? That being said, Ricky's recovery means more than just the on-court product. It makes the team interesting and fun again. It sort of brings back that pride in the team that this town clearly has wanted ever since the Spree/Sam year. The pride that made last January and February, when the Wolves were beating elite teams on a regular basis, so much fun. Because it was an amazing time after years of ineptitude. And while the team is a quiet 6th in the West, there still has been something missing. The tone around the web is still a bit somber. the TimberTrolls have been quieter than normal. That enthusiasm just isn't there yet. Ricky returning will bring back that magic.
Despite an easy schedule, you have to hand it to the Wolves, winners of 5 of their last 6 games. And now, unless something odd happens this afternoon, Rubio is set to finally make his debut nine months after sustaining the injury that derailed the 2011-2012 Timberwolves season. When Rubio went down in March, it almost felt as if we would never see him on the court again. The town had absolutely fallen in love with the starry eyed phenom; a town that desperately needed someone to love on the sports scene. Yet, the nine months have flown by, and with a team that can only get healthier for here (actually, we probably shouldn't count our chickens here), you have to feel good about where the team is going to head the rest of the season.
And that starts tonight against a Dallas team that was blown out against the lowly Toronto Raptors last night on the road. The Wolves are already 1-0 against the Mavs this season, taking the first game against Dallas on the road without Kevin Love. However, last night in New Orleans against the Pelicans (still not over that team name, I have grown to absolutely love it), the injury curse hit again, this time claiming Kevin Love and Josh Howard. Luckily x-rays on Love's hand were negative, and he should return to the court soon enough, and hopefully he will hit his stride again in the coming few weeks and start hitting shots. Josh Howard, the victim of a hyper-extended knee, will likely miss a little bit of time. And then there is Malcolm Lee, and I wouldn't be surprised if he had to undergo another knee surgery.
On team Dallas, you have OJ Mayo, who has returned to the form of his rookie year this season, where he averaged over 20 PPG, a year that had Wolves fans livid as McHale of course traded him on draft night. However, Mayo quickly fell into the Jason Terry role in Memphis, perhaps vastly underutilized, while Love summoned his inner Larry Bird and became a superstar. But with a fresh start in Dallas, Mayo has been playing out of his mind, averaging 20.4 PPG, including a 40-point night last week against the Rockets, and shows no signs of looking back. Dallas also made a few more quality short term moves, acquiring Elton Brand and Darren Collison (neither of which have worked out very well to date), as well as signing the wildly underrated Chris Kaman to a 1-year deal. All moves enable Dallas to maintain cap flexibility into next summer, where they will be able to add just about anyone they please, while still fighting for a playoff spot when Dirk returns to the lineup in short order this season. While Dallas' strategy of not defending its 2010 NBA title was criticized widely across the league, you have admire Mark Cuban's long-term vision. Dallas is a team that will likely not have to go through much rebuilding over the long term, which bodes well for the long term winning strategy Cuban has implemented.
As for the Wolves, assuming Rubio plays tonight and Love does not, they will have to rely on Pek and AK47 to bolster most of the scoring load. Pek has had an outstanding couple of games here, including a career-high 31 last night vs. NO. Are Pek's foot issues finally behind him? A big night against Dallas will be a great confidence builder for the burly fan favorite. Another storyline from yesterday was Alexey Shved making his first NBA start, a spot I expect he will hold for the Wolves for the indefinite future. While not perfect, I think it is safe to say that Shved has surpassed expectations for Wolves fans and coaches alike, and his shooting continues to improve. This is looking to be perhaps one of Kahn's top acquisitions since he arrived, and Alexey continues to be a player you just want to root for. Hopefully his pesky defensive efforts can hold Mayo to a sub-par night, a factor that was absolutely critical (thanks to Malcolm Lee's effort in his first NBA start that night) the last time the Wolves faced Dallas.
Prediction: Rubio's debut, a situation where Love being out may actually be addition by subtraction at this point….the movie script says the Wolves win it and rally the fan base before the schedule really ramps up in difficulty. Wolves win tonight at home.