If the Minnesota Timberwolves want to make it to the postseason, they will need a much higher level of play from Ricky Rubio.
On Dec. 15, the Spanish wunderkind returned from injury to play in his first game of the 2012-13 season. It wasn't a minute too soon for the T'wolves, who find themselves in the middle of a dogfight for a playoff spot in the stacked Western Conference.
At 13-12, Minnesota is tied with the Jazz for the eighth and final playoff spot. With three-quarters of the season to go and some talented teams in their midst (especially the star-powered Lakers), the Timberwolves need all the help they can get.
So far, Rubio has not been nearly as productive as he was in his rookie year. Unless he can round back into shape, Minnesota could end up on the outside looking in come April.
The Recovery Phase
For the Minnesota Timberwolves, the 2011-12 season unofficially ended on Mar. 9.
That's when Ricky Rubio bumped knees with Kobe Bryant and tore his left ACL. After 45 games, Rubio's rookie year was over and so was Minnesota's playoff push.
After that fateful game against the Lakers, the Timberwolves' record stood at 21-20, putting them right in the thick of the race for the eighth seed in the West.
The wheels fell off without Rubio, though, as his team could not function at either end without its maestro at point guard. Minnesota went 5-20 the rest of the way, and the T'wolves finished 10 games out of the playoff hunt.
It's clear the Timberwolves are demonstrably better with Rubio on the court, but they've also made considerable strides without him. They're not languishing in the cellar without the Spaniard; they're competitively in the middle of the pack.
Nikola Pekovic has established himself as a bull in the post. Andrei Kirilenko is making an impact at both ends of the floor, ranking third on the team in scoring and first in both blocks and steals. Luke Ridnour and Jose Juan Barea have been capable stopgaps, though without the electricity of Rubio's game.
That group has been good enough to keep the T'wolves in postseason contention, but they still need something more to secure their spot. A fully healthy Rubio can make that difference.
The Guy They're Missing
Last season, Rubio averaged 10.8 points, 8.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game, wreaking havoc on opponents with his quick hands and superb court vision.
In this play against the former New Jersey Nets, Rubio turns a fundamental defensive play into a dazzling spectacle.
As Rubio comes around the pick, he reads the passing lane and smartly intercepts Jordan Farmar's feed inside. What makes this play astounding is how Rubio finds the open man at the other end. Rubio freezes Farmar with a one-handed behind-the-back dribble, giving Wes Johnson time to get to the corner and Rubio an opening to find him there.
The box score simply gives Rubio a steal and an assist for that play, but the footage reflects his immeasurable creativity and intelligence. A lesser point guard would have chased Farmar and let the pass through, and he certainly wouldn't have pulled off that passing trickery.
Ridnour and Barea have held up the fort in Rubio's absence, but they have not been able to replicate his playmaking ability.
They often played alongside Rubio last season, and both point guards averaged more points per game than their rookie teammate in the backcourt.
However, no one on the Timberwolves has filled Rubio's role as a distributor.
Neither Ridnour nor Barea nor Alexey Shved have been able to set up their teammates as effectively as Rubio did last season. In fact, that holds true for Rubio, too.
With just four games played, Rubio's 2012-13 sample is too small to draw any major conclusions, but his comeback has been slow going.
Rubio has come off the bench in each of his four appearances, averaging just 17.5 minutes per game and putting up paltry numbers in that time. He is just 3-of-16 from the field with 3.3 points, 4.5 assists and a player efficiency rating of 4.97 (ESPN Insider required). If he had enough minutes to qualify, that PER mark would put Rubio dead last among NBA point guards.
Coming back from ACL surgery is always a delicate process, but Minnesota needs Rubio to get up to speed soon. If he can't facilitate for this Timberwolves team, then no one will.
Reason to Hope
Ricky Rubio may still be working his way back, but he definitely hasn't lost his sense of the game in his time out.
In his return against the Dallas Mavericks, his one decent game since coming back, Rubio showed the traits that make him a budding star.
He's moving pretty well for a guy nine months removed from major knee surgery. Regardless, that wouldn't detract from his knack for reading the opposition and for finding open shooters with inventive passing.
Now that he's back on the court, it could still be awhile before Rubio is at full strength again. When he is, the Minnesota Timberwolves will be that much more formidable.
Hopefully that time comes sooner rather than later; Minnesota's playoff hopes depend on it.