Four years ago Rubio was terrific in the Olympic final at Beijing, where he overcame an injury to his right shooting wrist while keeping the game tight into the final minutes. If Rubio could be so effective as a one-handed 17-year-old, then imagine what he might have accomplished this summer based on the confidence he was establishing night after night in the NBA.
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The diagnosis of a torn ACL in his left knee is a frustrating setback for everyone who was intrigued by Rubio and his potential. Rubio suffered the injury Friday night while trying to defend Kobe Bryant, whose scoring down the stretch beat Spain in the 2008 final, and
The presence of 30-year-old Jose Calderon, who is having a strong year with the Raptors, may enable Spain to survive the absence of Rubio. The same kind of hope exists in Minnesota, where the Timberwolves can now be especially thankful for the point-guard depth provided by Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea. But neither at the Olympics, nor in the playoff race over the seven weeks ahead, will either team be able to recreate the inspiring flair of Rubio.
He had quickly transformed the Timberwolves after two years spent waiting for him since the 2009 draft, when they picked him at No. 5 despite his preference to play for other NBA teams. Rubio played the next two seasons in Spain, winning a Euroleague title for Barcelona in 2010 and then living with criticism last season that his game had taken a step backward.
It turned out that he was a natural fit for the open-court style of the NBA. His surgery and rehab will be crucial to Rubio's future because his game is reliant on athleticism, which has come as a surprise to the many who questioned whether he could compete athletically with the most explosive point guards in the NBA. From his first NBA appearances this season, Rubio showed that he explodes horizontally rather than vertically. Would you rather have a quarterback who plays near the rim, or one who pushes the ball and attacks the defense with vision and absolute certainty?
Rubio proved to be athletic in the mode of Steve Nash, especially in his ability to play at a high speed while maintaining control and seeing the floor as if he was walking the ball up. He was able to pass one-handed off his dribble as handily as most other guards who must control the ball with both hands before attempting the kinds of cross-court bounce passes that Rubio executed as if he was making the simplest plays.
He finishes this season having quickly worked his way into the starting lineup while averaging 8.2 assists, which ranked him No. 5 throughout the league and first among rookies. He was able to make highlight plays without hurting the team, as attested by his assist-turnover ratio of 2.57, which ranked in the NBA's top 15.
The Timberwolves will need to revert to a less dramatic style via Ridnour, who was the starter at the beginning of the year. He is a superior scorer -- Ridnour was shooting 44.4 percent this season, compared to the 35.7 percent of Rubio, who must improve this glaring weakness -- but will he be able to generate the team-wide confidence that defined the short Rubio era? Without Rubio and All-Star forward Kevin Love (sidelined by back spasms) the Timberwolves lost on Friday for the 18th straight time to the Lakers.
At 21-20 the Wolves were nonetheless a half-game out of the playoffs, which they were hoping to reach for the first time since the 2003-04 MVP season of Kevin Garnett. Now it will be up to Love, who is averaging a sensational 25.5 points and 13.8 rebounds, to carry them through a difficult schedule of 15 road games over their final 25 overall. Fortunately for Love, he will be helped by coach Rick Adelman and Barea, who thrived for the Mavericks when his role was increased midway through the NBA Finals. Dallas would not have won its championship without Barea, and now Minnesota will need him in order to make the postseason after a seven-year absence.