It couldn’t have ended any other way.
The Wolves and Thunder were tied at 98, thanks in part to a pair of split free throws by Andrew Wiggins at one end (with 1:22 to go) and Norris Cole (with 43.4 seconds to go) at the other. Karl-Anthony Towns capped a wild, scatterbrained possession with a missed layup attempt, and the Thunder brought the ball down the floor to hold for their final shot:
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 12, 2017
Oladipo buried the long two, over the outstretched arm of Ricky Rubio, and the Thunder took a two point lead.
On the Wolves’ final possession, more chaos. But Karl got the defense to collapse, and the ball was swung to Ricky, who nearly fired, but paused, and made the (smart) extra pass to Wiggins on the right wing. He had a great look, but it clanged off the iron, and the Wolves, who’d trailed by 22 at one point, failed to complete the comeback.
Minnesota was a mess to open the game. With Russell Westbrook, the man who should be the league’s MVP, resting for OKC (along with key rotation pieces Taj Gibson and Andre Roberson), the Thunder used a balanced approach to jump out to a 33-16 lead after one quarter of play. The Wolves’ offensive ineptitude (they had nearly as many turnovers, 5, and field goals, 6, in the opening frame) was compounded by the Wolves’ familiar staring-out-the-classroom-window-dreaming-of-summer-vacation effort on defense.
The second quarter was much more of a back and forth, with the teams trading buckets, no matter who was on the floor. Karl led the way with 8 points in the frame, but gave many of them back at the other end, as Domatas Sabonis and Enes Kanter combined for 13. Andrew Wiggins, for his part, finished the first half 1-for-11 from the field with three points. The lone bright spot? Tyus Jones, who was a plus-4, and who’s cemented his place as the team’s plus/minus gawd.
Minnesota went into halftime down 13, but the sellout crowd got their energy up once the Wolves’ logo premiere video featuring Slug, Prof, and P.O.S. of Rhymesayers and Doomtree) started echoing throughout the arena. You can read all about it (and see the video for yourself) here.
Things changed for Minnesota in the third, and they changed because number 9 in the home whites had decided he’d had about enough. Ricky Rubio is a lot of things; we’ve had six years to appreciate, critique, love, hate, hope, and despair over his game. He’s been part of six losing seasons; but he’s somehow been a net positive player for almost that entire time. He can’t shoot, but in certain spots he definitely can. He defends like crazy, but can get a bit too amped up at times, like he did at the end of the loss in L.A. and with 43 seconds to go tonight, when he committed a bad foul against Norris Cole while trying for a backcourt steal. He might be turning a corner, like we thought he was prior to the 2014 ankle injury and with shot doctor Mike Penberthy, but he might just be what he is. He might be a leader, he might be the team’s true soul, in ways Karl and Andrew can’t be yet, but he might be expendable, and he might be as good as gone, the way we thought he was on Draft night and at the Deadline. This might have been his last home game as a member of the Timberwolves.
Despite his best efforts, despite his limitations, despite the fact that this was Game 81 of another season without the playoffs, you can see something when you watch Ricky, and especially if you watch him closely: he fucking HATES to lose, (Pardon my French.) There’s no other way to put it. I’ve been blessed to cover the Wolves, with a press pass, for four years. I have watched a star who loved to brood (Kevin Love), guys who love to dazzle (Karl and Zach), a demure, wobegone yeoman with the physical gifts of a young Dominique Wilkins but none of the flair (Wiggins), a goofy human grizzly bear (Pek), space aliens (Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley), and an aging Hall of Famer (Kevin Garnett) who commanded your attention, even when he was in street clothes on the bench (as he so often was). KG was at the end of his career, and while he was still his own brand of intense, he sat out so many nights, the fire wasn’t quite the same as it (obviously) was for so long prior. What I’m getting at, is, of all the players I’ve watched, Ricky’s the one who hates to lose the most. Hates it. HATES. IT. Despite his limitations, no matter the score, the record, the date, or the opponent, the singular thread that runs through all the basketball I’ve watched him play is that he cannot stand being defeated, despite how much of it he’s had to endure.
Ricky controlled the Wolves’ offensive tempo in the third, and by a combination of renewed defensive focus and the Thunder’s lack of depth catching up to them, Minnesota won the quarter 29-15, and entered the 4th with a one point lead. Around the 7:30 mark he yelled at KAT for trying to steal a rebound from a teammate, resulting in a Thunder basket. Around the 5:45 mark I heard him yell at Wiggins to get back. He was the one to argue (in his stern and yet oddly understated way) with the referees when it was called for. He directed traffic on offense and communicated on defense. He was, in short, calming everyone down and putting them in the right spots. Wiggins went 4-for-6, snapping his first half cold spell. Dieng scored 9 points in the 3rd. Rubio himself scored 5 points, had 3 assists and added.
Then the fourth, and the final minute. It was fitting, the way it all went down. Not poetic, not desirable, not particularly fun to watch, but fitting all the same. It was another Wolves loss in a season with 50 of them (now), in the tenth season (of 11) playing at a 50-loss clip (or worse). This is what we’re used to. And yet – and this is the part that I enjoy so much about Ricky – despite all that, it’s not what Ricky is used to. He keeps commanding, demanding, standing. I understand that that is what (well-paid) players are supposed to do, and it’s true that every player may show their desire to win in ways that are small and unseen. I’m not saying Ricky is the only smart guy on the team, or that he is the only one who works hard. But I am saying it’s the first impression and the final takeaway from his game, and that he’s the only Timberwolves player who meets that description.
That’s what the Wolves’ young core needs to learn, and become, as they don their new logos next season, and beyond. Will Ricky get to wear those, too? Will he get to see the end, or whatever we decided is the end, of this long, sad, slow uphill climb? It’s hard not to hope so. It’s quite the problem to solve, as jumpers land over outstretched hands and teammates miss game-winning threes. It’s quite a thing to persevere despite of it. If it hasn’t broken Ricky yet, the rebuilding and building and changes in philosophy and trade rumors and injuries and losing and losing and losing, the dreaded losing, the thing that seems to eat at him more than any other player, if it hasn’t wrecked Ricky yet, it never will. If it does work out, and he stays, or if doesn’t, and he’s traded away, we’ll look back on it and say:
It couldn’t have ended any other way.