TORONTO -- Ricky Rubio is struggling to find his rhythm, to lead his team, to play with the joy that defines his freewheeling game. He has said as much. On Thursday, the Minnesota Timberwolves guard told the Associated Press' Jon Krawczynski that he is not feeling like himself. The NBA affords him no time to wallow, though. On Friday, he had to get on with it.
After the Wolves finished their shootaround at the Air Canada Centre, Rubio got shots up after everyone else was done, going around the three-point line with assistant coach David Adelman rebounding. About an hour and a half before tipoff, he was back on the court, taking jumpers off the dribble. His release was quicker than on his spot-up shot, but he didn't approach all his shots at game speed. Sometimes players joke around with teammates and coaches as they go through their pregame routine. Rubio was all business.
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After he went back to a quiet visitors locker room, a media member approached him. He answered just a few questions, then wanted to concentrate. In his Minnesota shooting shirt and practice shorts, he fixed his eyes on the television showing breakdowns of Raptors vs. Bucks game film. Rookie center Gorgui Dieng called out to him, "Get hyped!" and Rubio let out a halfhearted smile, then resumed focusing on the TV until a member of the Wolves training staff told him it was time to stretch.
Rubio and his team had to be hoping this game would be a turning point. Inconsistent and 11th in the Western Conference, Minnesota has failed to meet lofty expectations in the first half of the season. Rubio has averaged 8.6 points, 8.0 assists, 4.6 rebounds and a league-best 2.6 steals per game, but he has shot just 34.6 percent from the field. Fans still love him, but he has become a lightning rod for criticism with local and national outlets zeroing in on his poor shooting.
It feels like the pendulum has swung too far with his public perception -- "All that stuff, I think it's bullcrap," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said, given that he's a productive, young two-way player who makes passes others can't comprehend. But his recent comments made it clear that no one has been harder on the 23-year-old than himself.
"I saw what he said," Timberwolves head coach Rick Adelman said. "He is a perfectionist. He gets down on himself. He's gotta try not to do that as much and just keep playing. There's not much you can do, the player has to just keep working at it. That's one thing you know about him, he will work at it. We just have to keep talking to him and help as much as we can. "
Adelman also wants to win, though, and that's where things get tricky. Rubio generally makes his teammates much better, but that's usually not the case late in games. Minnesota never held a lead in Toronto, and Adelman elected to leave Rubio on the bench as the team tried to fight back in the final frame. He did the same on Wednesday against Sacramento. All Rubio could do was watch as Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry put his team away.
The 94-89 loss at the ACC dropped the Wolves' record to 0-12 in games decided by five points or fewer. While Rubio is a creative and effective passer in any situation, his shot has completely abandoned him in fourth quarters. He has shot 18.2 percent in the fourth this season and he last made a fourth-quarter field goal on Dec. 16. Opposing teams guard him accordingly.
Adelman was annoyed when asked about the decision after the game, saying only that backup J.J. Barea was playing well and Rubio is "fine." After finishing with six points on 2-for-6 shooting, four assists, four rebounds and two steals in just 23 minutes, Rubio did not publicly protest it.
"It's my team, so I'm gonna support them even if I'm not on the court," Rubio said. "I'm gonna cheer for them. If I'm on the court, I'm gonna die for it. Off the court, I'm gonna do the same thing."
It's easy to feel bad for the guy. How do you inspire your team when you're benched down the stretch? Rubio's the sort of player who thrives when his teammates enjoy themselves and, with four losses in five games, the pressure is only rising.
Rubio came into last season talking about wanting to make the Wolves into a family, like his Spanish national team, but injuries derailed all that. This was supposed to be the year where everything came together, where Rubio and star forward Kevin Love would finally reach the playoffs. That's looking less and less likely, but Love said their confidence will be back as soon as they string some wins together, and Rubio tried to stay positive.
"The chemistry is there," Rubio said. "I love my teammates. I've been playing with a lot of them for three years. It's something that comes and goes."
Rubio's teammates see him working on his game, and they want him to keep his head up. It's obvious that this has been a struggle, but Minnesota isn't at the stage where it is resigned to losing. All Rubio could say was that he's going to keep "doing my thing" and "trying to play like me."
"His energy is basically unmatched," Love said. "The guy has a ton of fight in him and we'll roll with him every day."
The Timberwolves have no choice but to roll with Rubio, to try to push through this frustration. For a guy who routinely makes the impossible look easy, though, everything about this year has been difficult.