I’m sure Ricky Rubio’s parents are relatively thoughtful in regards to their children’s well-being. But recently It’s been hard to distinguish between him and a child home alone at Christmas, set to face-off with some small town bandits. Unfortunately too, it seems Rubio hasn’t taken to the situation the way Macaulay Culkin did 23 years ago either. Wide open at the top of the key, paralysed by fear and indecision, it seems that Rubio hasn’t quite developed the same fearlessness when faced with the enemy the way Macaulay Culkin did all those years ago. We’ve come to expect a little inaccuracy from the prodigious Spaniard, but the earthbound spiral of confidence we’ve seen of late is something I never foresaw.
The recent Christmas time tour of Los Angeles was brutal for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Starting off with the dire performance against the short-handed Lakers, the Wolves shot 35 percent from the floor and allowed Nick Young to perform his best Kobe Bryant tribute in the absence of the talisman. However, a poor shooting night is not something to worry about over the course of the 82-game season, even when they happen with such regularity as they may do for the Wolves. The offense is much better than last year, without doubt (rising from 25th to 11th in offensive efficiency). A far more sinister issue, though, reared it’s grim expression in the wake of the devastating overtime loss to the Clippers.
As one of the league’s elite, holding an 11-2 home record and possessing the 4th best offense in the league, the Clippers could be forgiven for underestimating the travelling Wolves. Possessing the ball with 30 seconds to go and up by five, the Wolves appeared to have stolen one. So, of course, a few misses later combined with the most egregious of turnovers and suddenly overtime was on its way. The loss resonates more than any other this season because of the overwhelming characteristic that defined this defeat. Fear. A tired and overused phrase i’m sure, but it is difficult to convey the performance in the game’s crucial moments in another way, they were playing scared.
From Kevin Martin’s fumble to the rushed final possession of regular time (It’s debatable but I do believe Kevin Love should have got the ball at the top of the key matched up against DeAndre Jordan over a Nikola Pekovic post-up). The Clippers killed the game in overtime, something Minnesota currently seem incapable of doing.
Just as Ricky Rubio reverts to his well-worn practice of dribbling laps around the key desperately looking for a reason not to shoot, the Wolves collectively let anxiety creep in as soon as it looked like the game was won. They finished Sunday’s game like a team that would rather be out of the spotlight, away from the pressure of being successful, as opposed to a team looking to break into the playoffs. In Minnesota, they can hide, but in Los Angeles at the Staples Center the harsh light of reality shone down on the team and all bar Love and Pekovic shied away from it.
As for Rubio, teams commonly taken on the identity of their point guard. As the primary ball-handler everything goes through him. Think Derrick Rose and the no-nonsense Bulls, Damian Lillard’s ice cool Trail Blazers, Russell Westbrook’s maniacal rampaging, Tony Parker’s nuanced mastery! So what of Minnesota’s identity? Will it be defined by Rubio’s tireless energy, his infectious passing or his crippling inability to shoot?
He currently possesses the second-worst effective field goal percentage of anybody playing more than 25 minutes a game (Zaza Pachulia sits on the throne for now). In fact, in the 3-point era, Rubio’s three years in the league have all been historically awful for guards that play as much as him. Seems unfair but it’s true.
What is unfair is to judge a player on one singular skill he does or does not possess. Rubio is a wonderful passer (arguably the most enjoyable to see in the league) and is an All-Defensive team candidate at point guard. This team is a very good offensive team and much more so with Rubio on the floor, averaging a frankly ridiculous 112 points per 100 possessions whilst on the court. Few in the NBA can run an offense like him, let alone anyone else on the Timberwolves. However, if Rubio is going to earn the max extension laid out for him, he will mightily underwhelm if his shooting does not move closer to average, especially his finishing at the rim (39 percent!).
It’s clear that Rubio is aware of his flaws and works to correct them, but he can’t improve by being this cautious. In December, he’s averaged 8.8 shots a game and made 33 percent of them. Against the Clippers he attempted four shots and missed all of them. Every player goes through slumps and the Timberwolves long for even the below-average shooting Rubio provided previously, because at least that provided a threat (albeit an inefficient one), that caused a defender to move in his direction. The recent troubles are by no means all on him, but no player’s performance embodies that of the franchise better than him right now. To sustain his obvious contributions to the team he needs to shoot first and regard consequence later. At some point, sooner or later, Kevin Love will cool down and they will need Rubio to raise his game.
I’m of the belief that the most overlooked aspect of Christmas in the modern world is it’s significance as the major annual landmark at which everybody universally can look back and ponder what has been and think a little about what may come. In this sense, the New Year period has always been overrated, it’s too short-lived and too party-oriented to work as a time for rumination. The protracted lead up to Christmas leaves an inordinate amount of time to consider all things merry and miserable. So as Ricky Rubio readies himself for his third Minnesotean Christmas, let’s hope he doesn’t consume his self-belief along with all the stuffing and turkey. The Wolves need him as much as they did before he arrived here, in fact, not that there is hope in the air, they need him more than ever.