Timberwolves 96, Thunder 86: The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio Solution

Nov 1, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio (9) against the Chicago Bulls at Target Center. The Bulls defeated the Timberwolves 106-105. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t look now, but the Minnesota Timberwolves are on a winning streak.

Karl Anthony Towns led the the way with 29 points and 17 rebounds, Andrew Wiggins had 19 points of his own, and despite Russell Westbrook’s 19th triple-double of the season, the Wolves ran away early in the fourth en route to a ten point victory. Minnesota has won three in a row and find themselves just three games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

For the third consecutive game, Ricky Rubio was spectacular, but this one was the best of the bunch. Two days after setting the franchise record for assists in a game, Ricky hit 6-of-12 shots, punishing the Thunder for sagging off of him in pick-and-rolls, and dished out 14 assists. During the Wolves’ streak, he’s averaging 12 points, 15 assists, and 3 steals, and looks more comfortable than he has all season. The plus-minus splits (relative to his backup point guard) are back to a familiar territory as well. Against the Thunder, Ricky was a plus-11, and Kris Dunn was a negative-1. In the Houston game, it was plus-12 for Ricky and plus-2 for Kris. And against Dallas, Rubio was a plus-9, and Dunn posted an even 0.

This all comes on the heels of a pair of hatchet jobs, one calling his time in Minnesota “damaging to the franchise“, and one asserting that he should be benched in favor of Tyus Jones.

Positivity abounds among the Wolves at the moment, and Ricky is the one leading the charge. Of course, it helps that Towns has also been spectacular, the defense is showing signs of improvement, Brandon Rush has been a more than capable stand-in for Zach LaVine, and the team’s bench has started to contribute (more on that in a bit).

I don’t know if Ricky Rubio is long for Minnesota. I don’t know if this is his final season here. It’d make a lot of sense if they dealt him away this coming summer, as much as it pains me to admit. I hope that’s not the case, I hope everybody figures this thing out, and I hope Ricky stays. There are 42 games left in the regular season, so we’re pretty much halfway home. Let’s see what they can build together the rest of the way.

A few other tidbits from last night’s game:

  • KARL ANTHONY. TOWNS. My goodness, the young man is on fire. During the Wolves’ winning streak, he’s averaging 29 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks on 68% shooting. That’s bonkers.
  • Know what else is bonkers? The angle on this shot…

  • The emergence of a somewhat healthy and (very) effective Brandon Rush is a critical development as well. He’s played significant (read – non-garbage time) minutes in 3 of the Wolves’ past 5 games, including each of the past two that Zach LaVine has missed due to injury. In those contests, he’s hit 9-of-15 threes and done a ton of little things to help the team. Last night, it was physicality on the boards (he only registered 4 in 39 minutes, but seemed to constantly be in the mix battling for position). He filled up the rest of the stat sheet, notching an assist, 2 steals and 2 blocks. If there’s a silver lining to Zach’s hip contusion, it could be Thibodeau dusting off Rush and discovering there’s a capable rotation player to be found there. I hope Rush is firmly in the mix going forward.
  • This probably deserves its own post (and will get one, hopefully soon), but some chatter has emerged over the past couple of games… should Zach LaVine move to the bench (while still closing games, presumably) when he comes back healthy? I’m torn on this one. If the future of the team is the big three, together, then they should be on the floor together as much as possible, wins and losses this season be damned. Then again, the team would benefit immensely (I believe) from a playoff berth this season, just to give them a taste of what it’s like. It’s probably too soon to really analyze this, as there’s really no way of knowing if Rush can stay this healthy and hot over the final three months of the season, but it’s an interesting debate to kick around.
  • Gorgui was 1-of-10 from the field and finished with 4 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists… yet he was tied with Ricky for a team-best plus-11. As Lucas pointed out last night, he seems immune from poor plus/minus games:

  • Next, a word from Zach Harper, who notes that the Wolves may have turned a bit of a corner defensively…

  • And finally, Lou Brown, just because…

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8 Responsesso far.

  1. Jello says:

    Ahh, this winning stuff is pretty good. Wiggins seems to be lagging right now but it’s good to see Towns truly dominate in the manner a star player should. I think John Wall got Rubio fired up. You could tell Wall was talking a lot and I think Rubio has been extra motivated lately. Hopefully the winning streak keeps everyone motivated and we can keep this going. It’s fun to watch.

  2. gjk says:

    A clear way to tell if someone’s not watching games or following the team that closely: if their opinion of Rubio starts and ends with his shooting ability. There were serious concerns about him early in the season for good reason, and even if the criticism of how Thibs used him was legitimate, it didn’t explain away every problem he was having. Even now, there aren’t clear statistical correlations to his changes and the team’s success; observation is the only thing pointing toward a change. But he’s a big part of why they’re winning, as he has been since he got here.

    On the other hand is the absence of LaVine in conjunction with their 4th quarter finishing off of Dallas and 2 wins after that. Regarding arguments about who should or shouldn’t start, those should’ve been discarded once teams really took staggering seriously and started mixing in the bench 3-4 minutes into each half. More staggering would also help them maximize the time Muhammad shares the floor with Rubio because that seems to bring out good things from him.

    The challenge in all of this is finding a way to include Rush in a way that doesn’t take too many minutes from Muhammad. It seems like Rush, Bjelly, and Aldrich almost have to be the rotating 8th member of the rotation, depending on the matchup. Scaling back the starters to 32 mpg would almost be a necessity to make more than 8 guys work in this rotation. With how the bench has been extending leads lately, they’ve earned more minutes.

    • pyrrol says:

      Good points on rotations. I love LaVine, but he’s been playing a crapload of minutes, so to get Rush on the floor you could also give him some LaVine minutes. Fresher LaVine would help, and Rush seeing the court would help. Win-win.

  3. pyrrol says:

    This was a really good win. The defense looks like it has turned a corner, but it is easy to underestimate how our uninterrupted offensive flow makes D so much easier even with same skills. Still, it does look like some of Thibs’ ideas are clicking more lately with some key players.

    This streak has created two ‘told you so’ things. One is letting Rubio do his thing. It’s not just that this clearly gives us the best (and a really good) chance to win every night. This develops the team faster and better than forcing players to play out of their strength and skill set and ignoring other players’ strengths that could be used for the team. In other words, it helps winning and development and the two are not mutually exclusive. We’ve seen what a toxin losing and underachieving is to development for years in Minnesota. The second’ told you so’ isn’t as big seemingly but really has made a huge impact on these game we’ve won. Giving Rush minutes. He’s played like a wise vet (just what we’ve needed). He’s done what he’s supposed to—hit threes, defend, be a calming presence. Specifically the D has really helped. The fact that he DNPed so much looks bad for Thibs. William describes the fact that Rush got dusted off because of LaVine’s hip a possible silver lining. It shouldn’t take injuries to accidentally discover basic things about lineups and personnel.

    The argument has often been that Thibs’ focus is more on development separate of wins than most fans’ focus. I guess I think a happy medium between wining and development is what is healthy and ultimately gets the best development. So, I’m really hesitant to kick LaVine to the bench. LaVine is a starting level talent. His flamethrower game on O makes him more suited to a Crawford-like bench role than Wiggins, but he deserves a starting role based on performance and talent as much as Wiggins to this point. I guess I’d be willing to try Crawfording LaVine to see how it works but I would look at it with caution–you don’t want to undersell the guy’s talent by locking him into a lesser role than he may deserve in the future. Once a guy gets the ‘bench spark’ role it is hard to move him out of that. As I stated recently, Wiggins and LaVine flat out need to learn to play together, posthaste.

    It’s interesting to note that with LaVine out, Towns is more of a go to that Wiggins. Wiggins has not played bad and is doing his thing, but he just may not be a ‘put the team on my back’ type of guy. And that’s OK. We potentially have 2 other players who could be that.

    A while back I said something like, ‘I don’t see what the big deal with Dunn is, he’s a Cameron Payne type talent.’ Sort of funny because in this game their lines were, Dunn: 4pts (2 of 4) 2rebs, 0ast, 1TO, 1Stl, 11mns. Payne: 4pts (2 of 6) 4rebs, 2ast, 1TO 0Stl, 16mins. Not sure what the future holds for either, but tonight they were similar type players 9 (one with more of an O lean and one with more of a D lean) .

    Obviously, this piece praises Ricky a lot for this win and streak. That’s nice. But William also says ‘It’d make a lot of sense if they dealt him away this coming summer, as much as it pains me to admit.’ Why would it make sense? Rubio is very good at a lot of things and complements this core. Continuity is needed. He’s old enough to be a vet, but relatively young. Replacing him would be a challenge, so to keep this franchise improving it might be best to keep him unless we have a darn good replacement plan at PG. In the most basic sense, trading Rubio this offseason does not make sense. On this topic, Jim Pete specifically talked about how Rubio/Wiggins had been used by Thibs during the broadcast, and basically criticized the idea of talking the ball out of Rubio’s hands and making Wiggins operate from an area further out that he doesn’t work well from. Not to mention the burden of running the offense and being a playmaker (which he doesn’t have the skill or personality for, by and large). Going with the grain makes our offense run like a Ferrari.

    • Jello says:

      For Rubio, pretty sure Will is saying it would make sense based off of how Thibs is approaching the season and how he has spoken in press conferences. I don’t want to put words in his mouth but if he’s like me, he is assuming Thibs wants a different PG with a better shot. Like Will, I want to see this team be successful with Rubio, but Thibs seems set on a different strategy so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Rubio go.

      On that same vein, I don’t think it’s surprising at all that the wolves have won without LaVine. I don’t think it has anything to do with how good he or rush are though. Thibs top goal this whole season has obviously been getting his big three to work together cohesively. He’s been putting the ball in their hands and leaving them on the court to try and expedite their learning process. Those three being able to play well together, regardless of who else is on the court, is vitally important. With LaVine out his ability to work on the big three chemistry goes away so he changes pace and focuses on running the most efficient offense they can put forth. I think in the past I was focused a bit much on Wiggs individual growth, but it really seems obvious now that Thibs has been pushing hard to get the big three type of chemistry he had in Boston. When this team is in contention in three years he has no idea who will be around his big three so he’s focusing hard on their chemistry so he can have freedom with the team he puts around them as complementary pieces. The last three games he hasn’t been able to work on that chemistry and so we’ve seen him give the reigns over to Rubio. I think when LaVine comes back we will immediately know what the future holds for Rubio based off how Thibs runs the offense. If he goes back to focusing solely on the big three things will seem pretty bleak for his time in Minnesota.

      • pyrrol says:

        I’m not a Thibs psychic. But if I were a Thibs advisor I’d tell him to keep Rubio unless you have a darn good replacement PG lined up–and to remember how many shots the combo of LaVine, Wiggins and Towns will want to take in the future. Either way, I’m not seeing a wise reason to get rid of Rubio in the offseason. Thibs’ pick of Dunn throws some significant doubt on his ability to scout young PG’s and I’m just not sure what we’d have to give up to acquire an established PG.

        Playing well together is the best way to build chemistry. What we saw earlier in the season had nothing to do with building chemistry. We mostly built frustration. Thibs should adopt the most winning strategy he can with whoever is on the floor, but particularly if the big 3 are there. Young players need to learn how to play serious, winning basketball with 5 guys, not get a certain amount of touches surrounded by certain guys in a certain amount of situations to aid some artificial ideal of development. Get them to play well together. Get them to win together. It’s not more complex than that. Rubio is a great guy to have around to get guys to play well together on both sides of the ball. This aids both development and winning and as I just noted, should not be abandoned unless a fantastic replacement is somehow found at a reasonable price. But rather than searching for a very unlikely situation along these lines, developing what we have seems like a better focus. I don’t know if what Jello is stating is at all what Thibs is thinking. But if it is, I’m skeptical on several levels.

        Ah, now I remember… Jim Pete called the way Thibs was using Rubio an affront to him. He said, basically, he’s been spending his whole career working hard (in a dive on the floor way you never see from Wiggins) setting up his teammates to succeed. And to be denied that role is an insult to his talent, hard work, commitment to team and commitment to winning. I have to agree. It was an affront. And it didn’t appear effective as a teaching tool or a winning tool.

  4. Tom says:

    I don’t understand the need to carve out minutes every game for Bjelly, Cole, and Dunn. Certainly, if they can provide something positive, then by all means, put them in. Otherwise, couldn’t Thibs include Rush and even, Baz or Tyus once in a while?

    As much as Rush has been a perfect 3 and D player, the last few games, this team transformation has come more because we have given the reins to Rubio, With Rubio running the offense, KAT stays in the low post, instead of coming out for pick and roll with Point Wiggins. A rotation of LaVine, Wiggins and Rush should be implemented for the rest of the season. Wiggins hasn’t shot well every game, so couldn’t Rush and LaVine be just as complementary as Rush and Wiggins have been? I’m not forgetting Baz, but I think he is definitely a second team guy.

    The type of offense that the team has run for the last few games has created an identity that can beat a lot of teams and possibly still make the playoffs. Hopefully, we don’t see Zack come back and Brandon goes back to the role of DNP-CD. I think that with Rubio running the offense, any combination of Wiggins, LaVine and Rush can still get the same results.

    The next big test is San Antonio. If this offense holds up against those guys, you have to think we have a chip, a chair and a chance of being an 8th seed this year.

    • Frank North says:

      The first test is Sunday, a team the Wolves should be able to beat, just did beat, and everyone expects them to beat. How do they handle that? Do they come in and play as sound as they have at home? Or do they give a low energy performance in what I would call a trap game.

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