“We’re not going to lose this game.”
In the NBA, phrases like that are uttered by a team’s leader. In addition, a leader is able to take those words and make them come true, even if it means he has to put the team on his back and willing his team to a victory.
That phrase, according to Flip Saunders, is what Ricky Rubio said to his team during tonight’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
If it wasn’t clear before, it became completely clear during Rubio’s injury-ridden absence: he is the clearcut leader of this team.
Hearing that he uttered that phrase was not a surprise. And even despite his documented history of troubles scoring the ball, watching him score 8 points in the final 1:47 of the game wasn’t all that surprising. The lack of surprise didn’t come from certainty that the shots he took were going to go in. It came from the team’s (and the crowd’s) obvious confidence in Rubio controlling the team’s outcome.
“Moments like that, it gives all the hard work I’ve been putting on my rehab, it’s all worth it,” said Rubio, who had 15 of his 17 points in the second half. “I’m back playing, that’s all I’m asking. I’m healthy. When I work hard, I work for these kind of moments, to be playing and enjoying the basketball. This is why I love basketball, for moments and games like that.”
It was a back-and-forth effort for the majority of the evening. The Grizzlies’ usual-stifling defense was a bit more inconsistent than usual, especially in the first half. They allowed the Timberwolves, specifically Andrew Wiggins, to get off to a hot start (11 points in the first quarter) and keep the game close.
The battle at center is always interesting when Marc Gasol is one of the participants. His numbers weren’t incredible tonight (just 15 points and 3 rebounds), but his impact inside was undeniable. A couple fast breaks were stopped because Gasol was standing in the paint, ready for whoever wanted to give it a go. He was also making tough shots on offense, against a surprisingly stingy Wolves interior defensive unit.
In the third quarter, the Grizzlies turned their defense on. They managed to keep Wiggins at bay, Pekovic out of position, and Kevin Martin from getting any easy looks. Anchored by Marc Gasol and Tony Allen, the Grizzlies have always been great at getting an offense out of position and getting into transition quickly. The Wolves were lucky enough to make some useful shots anyway, but Memphis did not make it easy, especially in that quarter.
In the fourth, the game remained close, and then something terrifying happened.
After this play, Ricky Rubio was forced to leave the game. Limping on the ankle that kept him out nearly 3 months and clearly upset, he made his way to the locker room. The Target Center was silent.
Thankfully, Rubio came out just a couple minutes later and re-entered the game. Rubio told us after the game that he just needed to walk off a slight tweak, and that he’s fine.
When Rubio returned, the Wolves were down 6 with just under 4 minutes to go. When looking at each team’s season, it would have been easy for the Wolves to fold up. But remember what Rubio said.
“We aren’t going to lose this game.”
Still, as more time passed, and as the Wolves fell to a 87-80 deficit with 2 minutes to go, it seemed like it was over. Then Rubio hit 3-pointer to put the Wolves down 4.
A minute later, this happened.
After a Thad steal, Rubio hit 2 free throws. A strong defensive stand in the final 10 seconds won the Wolves the game.
Obviously, this game wasn’t won solely by Ricky Rubio, but he deserves every bit of praise he receives for his effort tonight. Yes, Andrew Wiggins had a nice game, especially in the first half. Pekovic and Young did a great job containing the Grizzlies’ frightening starting frontcourt duo of Gasol and Randolph. Anthony Bennett had a couple nice plays in the first half.
But Ricky Rubio was the difference-maker tonight. His leadership and clutch play brought the Wolves to a position where they could beat one of the NBA’s best teams.
He didn’t let them lose this game.