The Minnesota Timberwolves have won seven of their last 11 games, throwing their hat into the ring for that 8-seed in the Western Conference — a spot that seems perpetually available to anyone who wants to play even remotely consistent basketball.
More important than whether the Wolves can finish off their unlikely playoff surge (as of this writing, Basketball-Reference gives them a 5.5 percent chance, FiveThirtyEight 6 percent) is how they’ve gone about it. Over that 11-game stretch, they’ve had the ninth-best offense, tied for the fifth-best defense, and registered a plus-7.5 net rating.
The engine for Minnesota’s playoff push is Karl-Anthony Towns. Obviously. The second-year phenom is averaging 27.6 points, 15.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game over the last 11. Yet for as incredible as Towns is playing, it’s something we’ve almost come to expect, an absurd statement to make about a 21-year-old, but one that shows just how impossible it is to measure his true ceiling.
The spark plug behind Minnesota’s run has been point guard Ricky Rubio, fresh off his latest dalliance with trade deadline rumors. The distractions are nothing new for Rubio, who is rumored to be on the move every six months or so. This year was different, though. With the selection of Kris Dunn with the fifth overall pick in last June’s draft, and the arrival of Tom Thibodeau as president of basketball operations and head coach, Rubio’s eventual departure has been assumed for the last nine months. He was reportedly almost traded for the shell of Derrick Rose, for crying out loud.
Yet here is Rubio, playing perhaps the best basketball of his career. He has averaged 14.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 10.7 assists, and 1.9 steals per game during this recent Wolves run, finding a balance between scoring and facilitating that’s frequently been lost in his game. This excellent play has come as Rubio has gone head-to-head with some of the game’s best — his last five games have included matchups with Chris Paul, John Wall, Stephen Curry, and Isaiah Thomas.
During this recent stretch, Rubio’s shooting is up nearly across the board. He’s shooting 45.8 percent from the field, up from the 38.9 percent he had been shooting before this run. He’s made 37.5 percent of his 3-point shots, a number that may not sound imposing until you realize he was shooting just 29 percent from deep on the year up until that point. And he’s been especially impressive on catch-and-shoot 3s, hitting 47.6 percent over his last 11, up from 30.01 percent. Rubio is also burying his pull-up shots, an important facet of the game for a player who is such a wizard slinging the ball to his teammates off the pick-and-roll.
The bump in scoring, from just 8.9 points per game through February 14 to the 14.8 per game he’s averaged since, has been a much-needed boost to a team that lost Zach LaVine’s perimeter scoring punch when he went down with a torn ACL on February 3. Rubio’s scoring spike, while maintaining a 58.4 percent true shooting percentage, seems almost unfathomable for a player whose career has been plagued by his own inefficiency. It has been the one glaring blemish in an otherwise intriguing package of creativity, court vision, flare, and moxie.
The uptick in scoring has helped enhance Rubio’s true strength — a passing brilliance that, sort of like Towns’s scoring, is easy to take for granted because of how consistently excellent it is. In fact, the 19 assists Rubio notched in Minnesota’s impressive 119–104 win over the Washington Wizards, a game in which he easily outplayed Wall, was a franchise record.
Rubio isn’t the kind of playmaker who necessarily needs a trap on the perimeter or a full rotation from a shot blocker to open up passing lanes. A defender’s half step in the wrong direction, or a slight hesitation in a rotation caused by split-second indecision over whether to close out on Rubio’s pull-up jumper, can open up a bounce pass in traffic that maybe only five people in the world have the ability to both see and execute.
For as much as Rubio’s offensive improvement has helped keep the Wolves’ offense afloat, it’s been their improvement on defense that is downright shocking. Through February 14 the Wolves had the 25th-ranked defense, allowing opponents to score 108.5 points per 100 possessions. And they were showing no signs of turning the corner, either, allowing 113.4 points per 100 in the 10 games immediately preceding this 11-game run. To suddenly be among the league’s best has caught everybody by surprise. Except for maybe this guy.
For all of the Wolves’ struggles over the last few years on this side of the court, Rubio has been the one constant. His pure on/off numbers may not suggest that that’s the case (this year, at least), but that’s likely a byproduct of playing so many minutes with a young core that’s high on athleticism but low on discipline. Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine all suffer even more pronounced on/off splits when it comes to Minnesota’s defensive aptitude.
But as that young core has grown, as their defensive discipline has improved ever so slightly, and as Brandon Rush has given them some much-needed defensive stability, Rubio’s contributions on defense have become more apparent. Ever the ball thief, always aware, and capable of slowing down even gifted scorers, Rubio’s been a gem. Remember those four point guards — Wall, Steph, IT4, and CP3? They shot a combined 40.3 percent and averaged 3.8 turnovers per game in their recent meetings with the Wolves.
None of this is to say Rubio’s excellent play makes his future with the Timberwolves any more secure than it was a month ago. Dunn still looms in the shadows, and even though he’s had a dreadful offensive season, it would be almost unprecedented for a team to admit a sunk cost this early into the career of a no. 5 overall pick. And, considering the shared shooting struggles between the two, a fatal flaw in the space-obsessed NBA, it’s hard to see the team moving forward with both on the roster. In fact, the pair have shared the court for just 17 minutes so far this season.
Perhaps this recent stretch of play will force Minnesota to reevaluate its stance on how to handle the point guard spot. Perhaps this run, along with Dunn’s offensive struggles, will simply delay the decision, forcing Rubio to fight for his Minnesota livelihood for yet another year, an all-too-familiar position for a player who, despite the rumors, has still called only Minnesota home during his six-year NBA career. Or perhaps the strong play makes Thibodeau more likely to find a team willing to meet his asking price this summer.
Is Rubio’s departure inevitable? Is his recent play sustainable? Let’s shelve that talk for now, because the sight of Minnesota’s sort-of/kind-of/at-times-franchise point guard slinging cross-court passes to corner shooters, threading impossible bounce passes to diving big men, slowing down the game’s elite point guards, and finding his own scoring touch is just too much fun to not enjoy in the moment.