By Ben Golliver
Ricky Rubio should be in store for a huge ovation when he takes the Target Center court for the first time in more than nine months.
The Timberwolves announced Saturday morning that Rubio, who has been sidelined since March after tearing the ACL and LCL in his knee, will be in uniform and is "expected" to play against the Mavericks on Saturday night. This game had been circled on the calendar as a possible return date earlier this week. Rubio was officially cleared for full-contact practices a little more than two weeks ago.
"I'm excited to get back on the floor with my teammates and play in front of the best fans in the NBA at Target Center," said Rubio. "After a long recovery, this is the first step in me getting back on the court and helping my teammates. Thank you to the fans for their support over the last nine months."
Rubio, 22, was the No. 5 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. Known for his flashy play-making skills and teen prodigy background, Rubio chose to continue playing professionally in Spain until the 2011-12 season, when he arrived in the NBA as a serious Rookie of the Year candidate. He averaged 10.6 points, 8.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals in 34.2 minutes per game before suffering the knee injury during a Mar. 9 game against the Lakers at the Target Center.
Rubio was injured while attempting to defend Lakers guard Kobe Bryant on the perimeter. He underwent surgery on March 21 after the injury and sat out the remainder of the 2011-12 season. Minnesota was 21-20 with Rubio in the lineup last season and just 5-20 without him. He also missed the 2012 London Olympics, where he was expected to represent Spain.
All things considered, coach Rick Adelman and company must be thrilled with where his team stands this season following a rash of early season injuries. Entering Saturday, Minnesota is 11-9, good for second in the Northwest Division and in the Western Conference playoff picture. This, despite Rubio's absence, a hand injury that sidelined All-Star forward Kevin Love for a month, plus assorted injuries to other players, including Brandon Roy (knee surgery), Chase Budinger (knee surgery), J.J. Barea (concussion/foot), Josh Howard (knee) and Malcolm Lee (knee).
The one constant in Rubio's absence has been point guard Luke Ridnour, who has started all 20 games for Minnesota and is averaging 11.9 points and 4.8 assists per game. Last season, Adelman often played Rubio and Ridnour together. Until Roy is back, the two point guards, along with Barea and Russian rookie Alexey Shved will make up the backcourt rotation. One player who is surely among the happiest to have Rubio back is Love. He recently expressed some frustration with the Timberwolves' long-term vision but has regularly praised Rubio as a teammate and play-maker. Love has yet to make the postseason during his career and Rubio's on-time return should be a major factor in helping the Timberwolves pursue their first playoff appearance since 2003-04.