Teams need wins.
Pretty obvious statement, right?
Obviously teams need wins. Wins produce success. Wins produce playoff chances. Wins produce playoff seeding and possible advantageous match-ups. Wins produce championships. Wins produce confidence and chemistry. Wins produce opportunities. For a team like the Timberwolves, who have struggled so much this season while battling injury after injury, wins produce a sense of relief.
“They have just been slapped around so much,” Rick Adelman said after the victory. “I think you get to a point where you keep saying the same things, you keep talking about the same things. But you need to get a win.”
The thing about the Timberwolves as of late is they’re often overmatched. No Kevin Love, no Chase Budinger, no Nikola Pekovic (sometimes), no Andrei Kirilenko (sometimes). We don’t have to go through all of the injuries again. This isn’t a season recap of sorts; it’s more that the team hasn’t been at full strength for one tick off the clock this season. Is that something opponents should pity at all? No. This is what professionals have to deal with on a nightly basis. Rarely is a team completely healthy, so there is no sense in feeling sorry for the wounded opponent.
The thing about this overmatched Wolves’ team though is they continue to fight. It’s often a futile venture for this team and yet they continue to do it on a nightly basis. Why do they fight? Because they choose to. They are professionals. Are they good professionals? That’s debatable. Their record certainly wouldn’t indicate that they are, but it also wouldn’t offer up much context to the season for them either. With just 20% of their starting lineup, the Wolves have been fairly competitive. They haven’t been good, but they’ve been competitive.
All of the coaching in the world can’t make up for the lack of talent the Wolves have on the floor. That isn’t meant to disparage the guys on the team contributing beyond what they should be asked to do; it’s just the same old fact that third stringers are now key backups and key backups are now starters. You can scheme, you can game plan, you can make adjustments, and you can fix player rotations. But if you don’t have the depth, strength, and skill set to draw on for much-needed victories, the coaching can only do so much.
If this Wolves’ team continues to lose a lot, it wouldn’t be a shocking development to see them really tank. I don’t mean tank in the sense that they’re angling for a better draft position; I mean tank in the sense that competitive losses become blowouts and team chemistry becomes an exploding beaker after poorly combined elements. The encouraging words of the coaches become white noise in a numb environment for the players. That’s why wins like the little one over the Wizards was so important. It reminded them that doing the work pays off at times, which leads players to want to continue to do the work.
“Today was a relief to get that win,” Ricky Rubio said.
The relief of the night was when Rubio checked back into the game with 9:08 left in the fourth quarter. The Wolves found themselves on the Bobcats’ side of a 13-0 run by Washington and a five-point lead quickly turned into an eight-point deficit. Then Rubio came back into the game. Over the last 9:08 of the game, Ricky didn’t make a single shot. He was 0-of-4 from the field, unable to find the bottom of the basket except for on a couple of free throws. What he did do though is blow up the Wizards’ backcourt like Jared Allen blows up a play-action pass.
Ricky had four assists and four steals in the fourth quarter and showed you every bit of how he can dominate a basketball game without doing any scoring. Does it help that it was the Wizards? Absolutely. Even though Washington has been a good team since John Wall returned to action, they still are a team that struggles a lot with scoring baskets and taking care of the basketball. Rubio’s aggressive defense is caustic at times, both good and bad. He’s a pest. He’s a gambler. He’s someone who can burn and get burned all in the same play.
But he is also one of the most disruptive players in the NBA on the perimeter. It doesn’t mean he’s one of the best defensive players on the perimeter; it just means he disrupts a lot. The long arms, the clairvoyant nature of his basketball decisions of when to pounce; it was all on display as John Wall’s high dribble and the Wizards’ guards’ poor passing decisions became problematic on key Washington possessions. Rubio came in and immediately forced two steals within the next minute. This led to five points by the Wolves and a lot of confidence to close out the game. This is what Rubio brings to the court, even when the Wolves are overmatched and even though he’s just 22 years old.
“I think he knows what to do, how to get certain people the ball where they should get it,” Adelman said about Rubio’s leadership, despite being so young. “He’s going to get us quicker baskets when we’re down like that. He’s going to push the pace and he’s going to get to the middle.
He gets a little hardheaded. Like I want him to take the ball out of bounds at the end there and he didn’t want to take the ball out of bounds; he wanted to get the ball in his hands. You know, I had to explain it to him, ‘you’re the best passer we have; you’re the best decision-maker. Taking it out of bounds is the thing we needed.’ Luke’s the best free throw shooter, so we tried to set that up so that happened. He’s just trying to do everything. Hopefully, it will rub off on everybody else.”
The energy certainly seemed to rub off on everybody else once he was inserted back into the game. Over the next 4:24, the Wolves’ lineup of Rubio-Barea-Shved-Williams-Cunningham had an offensive rating of 138.9 (small sample size but insane) and a defensive rating of 75.0 (ditto). Then they switched out Shved for Ridnour and had a split of 114.2/38.1 over the next 4:15. The Wolves dominated a shaky Wizards team over the course of eight-plus minutes in the fourth quarter to take back control of the game and get the win. It included two big 3-pointers from J.J. Barea, which he almost didn’t get to make.
“Yeah, I told him he was within five seconds of not having an opportunity to do that,” Adelman joked after the game. “But I kept waiting for him because he has that ability. But I thought he was hesitating all night long. When he caught the ball, he wasn’t ready to shoot it. And then he’s driving into those trees in there and it’s not good. But he made that one, made the other one; I mean, he has the ability to make those shots. That really helped us.”
That’s the thing about Barea. Fans are annoyed by him, mostly because of his size and playing style. He’s a small guy in a big man’s world. Naysayers will call it a Napoleon complex, but really it’s just fighting for survival in the NBA. He has a skill set and a really good one at that. He dribbles the life out of the ball and he forces a lot of stuff at times. But he’s also one of the few guys on the roster who can create off the dribble to score inside and knock down shots from the perimeter at a decent clip. In a more watered down role, he’s perfect for what a team needs, as he showed during the 2011 playoffs with the Mavericks. On a team where he’s asked to do a lot more than just being a spark plug, his warts get magnified.
What’s funny about him knocking down those shots in the fourth quarter is he knew he was about to be taken out. He admitted as much after the game when he confessed that he knew if he didn’t make his next 3-pointer, he could tell Adelman was going to take him out. And that’s what the winning ultimately brought about for this team. It was relief and a chance to joke around with each other. There wasn’t a need to wonder what went wrong because the game went right for them in the end.
Adelman was able to joke about wanting to take Barea out. Chase was in the locker room, going over the box score next to J.J. and wondering why Barea couldn’t get a single assist in the game. He teased J.J. about being selfish, while Barea jabbed back reminding Budinger that it was the first game of the season in which he didn’t record an assist. J.J. also joked about the last steal Rubio was credited with needing to go Barea’s way before he explained Wall’s dribble was high at that point and once he turned him around with pressure, Ricky pounced to force the turnover.
Rubio is on a pretty remarkable streak right now with steals and stats in general. He has 43 steals in his last 10 games, something that hasn’t been done since 2002 when Ron Artest grabbed 44 steals in a 10-game stretch for the Indiana Pacers. He has four 4×5 games (at least five of a statistical category in four categories, not including turnovers) in the last seven games. Only one player (Monta Ellis) has more (five) this season. It was also the seventh 4×6 game of the season in the NBA. Rubio has two of those and three in his career. Kevin Garnett and Terrell Brandon are the only other players in Wolves’ history to do this.
“No,” Rubio answered in a matter of fact manner when asked if he took pride in his run of eye-popping statistics lately. “We didn’t win any games lately, so that doesn’t matter.”
It’s just about the victory right now, which came at a much-needed time. Even with the Wolves facing a pretty tough stretch of games coming up, the smallest confidence boost with a victory like the one they stole from the Wizards is important.
“Yeah, I miss winning so bad,” Rubio reflected. “I just want to win every night and I know it’s hard. You can’t do it. Even Miami can’t win every night. I missed that feeling so bad. Today was a relief to get that victory again.”