Well, the Washington Wizards are just a mess. John Wall, the future of the franchise, glowers his way to a 3-10 shooting, four-turnover loss. Nick Young devours shot clock searching for just the right contested, long-range jumper. Andray Blatches and JaVale McGee wallow in their own sulky goofery. Possession after single-pass possession are wasted. Opposing ballhandlers sail to the rim. Corrosively bad vibes emanate. We offer a little sigh of gratitude that this is not our team to cheer or discuss or play for or coach.
And yet, much of this game’s first half exuded that odor familiar to Wolves’ followers: an opponent already half-beaten before the opening tip given new life by the Wolves’ trademarks of turnovers, foolish decisions and lack of perimeter dynamism. Luke Ridnour failed to generate purposeful ball-movement. Wes Johnson and Wayne Ellington were uncreative and anemic. Darko dropped passes, fell for the up-fakes of much shorter players, missed bunnies, competed meekly for rebounds.
But then Ricky Rubio entered the game and things felt somehow changed. It’s not as if Rubio played perfectly. As he tends to, Ricky sprinkled more than his share of ill-advised passes and bricked mid-range jumpers into his array of inspired plays. (It’s well worth remembering that Rubio sports the worst turnover rate of any of the league’s top 30 point guards.) But Rubio’s ability to create passing angles with his ballhandling was pretty remarkable. Suddenly, the Wizards defense was forced to collapse and recover, to rotate smartly and make hard choices (stay at home on shooters or protect the basket?). Jump shooters were suddenly wide open and running off of screens with an easy rhythm. Lanes to the hoop were suddenly breezy and broad.
Single game plus/minus stats aren’t always meaningful, but in this case Rubio’s (and Derrick Williams’) +29 explain the game pretty well. When those two were in the game, the Wolves were actually playing basketball, were actually able–and this has been a rarity among recent Wolves’ squads–to take advantage of a lesser team’s myriad mistakes. Most impressive to me has been Rubio’s poise in the face of athletic, pressuring NBA defenses. When the Wizards trapped, he unhurriedly moved the ball to the open man. When Nick Young bodied up on Rubio 30 feet from the basket, Ricky calmly blew past him into the lane, spun in midair and found Williams for a wide-open three.
If it’s easy to have a little contempt for the Wizards’ performance on Sunday, it’s probably because the hallmarks of that performance are like grotesque versions of our worst Wittman or late Rambis-era fears. Players who lack trust both in one another and in their coaches. Interminable disconnected, one-on-one basketball. Grim fourth-quarter faces as the opponent coasts to another easy layup. The Wolves are nobody’s idea of a playoff team and their future is by no means secure but it’s feels pretty good to entertain the pleasant notion that those rough days are behind us.