My friend Erik and I stood at the counter in Webfoot, a relatively new bar on the University of Oregon campus, and took in the final few minutes of the Los Angeles Clippers game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on the big-screen. As we watched, we struck up a conversation with a man named Jay sitting on a nearby stool milking a beer. He, who had lived in Minnesota before moving to Eugene, was a diehard fan of the Timberwolves, and was ecstatic about the uplifting direction of the team. He said this game, which was televised on ESPN, was the only time he has seen them play this season. And, largely due to the play of star forward Kevin Love and rookie point guard Ricky Rubio, was he ever in for a treat.
As we watched the closing minutes, we talked about these two players, among others. As Rubio made two fancy passes to center Darko Milicic for baskets, Jay raved about his potential. We agreed that even at the age of 21 he already has Steve Nash’s passing ability. The latter of the two passes to Milicic confirmed this, as he threaded the needle between two Clippers to where he knew Milicic would be. It bounded at the perfect height for the 7-footer to grab and swoop in for a layup. My friend Erik, Jay, and I were in awe.
Rubio–with a beard that, though it tries, doesn’t keep him from looking like a kid–came over from Spain and has lived up to the hype. Despite his youth, he is poised and his decision-making is intelligent.
“You’ve got to give him rope and let him go because he’s got that ability,” head coach Rick Adelman told the LA Times. “But I think probably the biggest thing I really love about him is he’s a competitor. He doesn’t back down from anybody. He gets a lot of attention but he keeps an even keel. He doesn’t get too high, too low. He just plays. He’s been better than I thought he was going to be.”
He may be a rookie in the NBA, but he sure doesn’t play like it. He has been playing professionally since he was 14 and, at 17, was on Spain’s Olympic team in 2008 that finished second. His having this background was evident, but though he played well beyond his years there were instances where he was just a 21-year-old having the time of his life.
Though his passing is superb, his shot is far from appealing. He is shooting only 39 percent on the season and was 0-9 from the field with a half-minute remaining. Minnesota had fought back from a 11-point halftime deficit, and they were down three, 98-95, with a chance. The crowd in Los Angeles was buzzing. The Timberwolves were the underdog and in a hostile environment, but that didn’t affect them. They stayed calm and collected. And Rubio wasn’t afraid of the moment.
Guard Luke Ridnour pulled down a defensive rebound in traffic with 32 seconds left, and, helped by a Love screen, drove into the lane. Clippers forward Blake Griffin converged on him, so he passed out to rookie Derrick Williams, who then whipped the ball to Rubio. The Spaniard, who Jay dubbed “The Magical Unicorn”, didn’t hesitant, lofting a three-pointer in front of the Clippers bench. Swish. The crowd groaned. And he pumped his fist, jumped up and down, and skipped down-court. He was celebrating as if he had just won his team the championship. And he couldn’t have looked more like a kid.
Twenty seconds remained, the game tied at 98. The Clippers, being at home and with a veteran, star-laden team were sure to either score or get bailed out by the refs. Billups would take the last shot. Rubio had to guard him. Jay said he wasn’t a great defender, but Rubio certainly was on this play. He stuck with the NBA champion guard as he drove into the lane and used his long arms to affect Billups driving layup. Due to his superb defense, the shot was missed. The Timberwolves grabbed the rebound. A second and a half remained. While others in Webfoot mingled, Jay, Erik, and I were glued to the television. Minnesota would have a chance.
Head coach Rick Adelman drew up the perfect play. Rubio and Ellington screened off Love’s defender, DeAndre Jordan, forming a wall that, to his dismay, couldn’t get through. Love popped out beyond the three-point line, wide-open, 32 feet from the basket. He launched immediately. Clippers fans behind the basket put their hands on their head, expecting the worst. The worst happened. Swish, again. Love turned around and threw his arms into the air, and walked downcourt. His teammates ran jubilantly towards him, including Rubio, who had the same hop in his step as before.
We let out yells filled with happiness and slapped hands as we watched Love’s shot fall through the net. Jay, in particular, was beside himself with joy. Minnesota had defied the odds and won, doing so behind two pieces of a bright present and future.
Fans like Jay have more than just a single game to relish in. Minnesota, which has seven wins in 15 games after managing just 17 in 82 last season, has the opportunity to make some noise in the Western Conference for many years to come. And it all starts with the flashy Rubio and the svelte Love–two confident and incredibly gifted players.
Adelman has seen this before with the Sacramento Kings. He coached many talented teams anchored by Mike Bibby and Chris Webber–a flashy point guard and a dominating forward. The electrifying duo of Rubio and Love is the second coming, a better version.
“He won us that game,” Love said of Rubio moments after defeating Los Angeles. “He showed a lot of poise. He wasn’t necessarily playing the greatest ball through three quarters, but I told him ‘All we need is one good quarter out of you.’ He had a great fourth quarter, hit a big shot for us that tied up the game, giving us a chance to win. I love him for that. He’s been great since day one.”
“I believe in that shot,” Rubio said. “I believe in myself. Because if not, nobody can believe for you. You have to trust in your and try to hit the shot, like we trust in Kevin on the last one.”
“We’re just giving ourselves a chance to win,” Love added. “Last year we might have imploded if we got down 10, 12 points, so I mean we’re really just grinding it out as much as we possibly can and getting better every day. We’re happy to get this win.”
With these two running the show in Minnesota, many more wins are on the horizon. And that means Jay, who has watched his team lose for so many years, will be able to have the feeling Rubio and Love’s heroics produced again and again.