Its not that the Wolves were listless or lackadaisical in the first quarter of this game. They were playing hard, conscientiously attempting to execute their offense and make solid rotations on defense. No, the word to use might be “uninspired”: the offense was stagnant and uncreative; they were bricking jumpers; they were allowing the Mavericks open looks in the midrange and in transition. It was pretty mediocre.
But that all changed when Ricky Rubio and his aura of great, oceanic positive vibes entered the game. He threaded a one-handed bounce-pass to a cutting J.J. Barea. He dropped a stomach-churning hesitation move on Elton Brand and then calmly dealt the ball behind his back to Derrick Williams in the corner (who missed the wide-open corner three, but thats cool). He denied passing lanes, frantically dug at ballhandlers and fought around screens. In traffic, surrounded by Mavericks, he bounced a pass through his own legs, past an astonished Elton Brand to a diving Greg Stiemsma. The building was stunned, ecstatic, then stunned again.
Suddenly, Wolves like Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved were making aggressive, penetrating passes. Suddenly, bodies were flying to loose balls. Big men were attacking shooters. Guards were hitting cold-blooded jumpers and launching themselves at the rim. Suddenly, Derrick Williams was playing with patience and poise, hitting jumpers in rhythm and finishing at the basket. The crowd was vibrant and alive. Even the officials lost themselves in the game’s newfound wild magic.
Because I was living in the desert last year, my only experience of the Rubio spell before tonight was televised. And even that mediated memory had begun to fade, thanks mostly to the relentless bummer that was the Wolves’ season following Rubio’s knee injury. But now, after witnessing the phenomenon in person, I can testify to a fact: the magic is real. When Ricky handled the ball, I swear to you, the molecules in the Target Center air vibrated at a more resonant frequency. The team began to move with the kind of loose, beaming freedom that comes only when the fear of failure melts away, when joy becomes its own pursuit.
By the time Rubio pulled up for the potential game-winning three at the end of regulation, he had already exceeded our wildest expectations for his comeback, had already reminded us of the nearly transcendent feeling of watching him play. He had seemed to transfigure the Wolves’ culture simply by stepping onto the floor. And so its probably for the best that he missed that shot, if only to remind us that he really is an actual human player with very real flaws, that physical rules still apply, that our imagination does not bend reality just because Ricky Rubio wants it to.
So he missed that shot and exhausted his allotment of minutes in the process. But the transfiguration held. Andrei Kirilenko hit a streaking Shved off the OT’s opening tip. Pekovic corralled a long outlet pass and, in the same motion, dished it to a trailing Kirilenko for a leaning layup. Shved hit a rolling Pek for a layup and a foul. Good feelings abounded.
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Here’s a bit of a paradox. Rubio is gifted in his ability to make the game fast and chaotic–and then to thrive in that chaos. He disrupts opposing offenses; he pushes pace in the open floor; he breaks down the defense with his dribble and his shockingly creative passing. But he also, sometimes simultaneously, slows and simplifies the game, makes it seem vivid and intelligible. His passes often serve as guides, gentle reminders to his teammates, and to us, of the ideal shape of a play, of the optimal movement of bodies on the floor.
Two cases in point. In the second quarter, Rubio steals the ball and leads a three-on-two break with J.J. Barea and Derrick Williams on the wings. Rather than push the ball down the throat of the transition defense, as most point guards might do, he slows, and even retreats slightly, when he reaches the top of the key. As the defense retreats into the paint, Rubio inclines his head toward Barea–all but instructing his running mate to fade to an open spot behind the three point line–and hits him with a sharp chest pass. Barea drains the wide open three.
Fourth quarter now, one minute to go, Wolves down 102-100. Rubio and Nikola Pekovic initiate a high screen-and-roll. This is a staple play of the Wolves’ offense, but it comes into striking focus with Rubio at the helm. Shved and Barea tend to draw this play out, dribbling laterally and allowing Pekovic the chance to seal his rotating defender under the basket. But, as he did all last year, Rubio winnows the pick-and-roll to its essence. He threads a pass to Pekovic in mid-roll, before the rotating Shawn Marion has a chance to reach the big man. What was complex and elongated becomes simple and clear.