MINNEAPOLIS Rick Adelman's face should have lit up.
It was Friday night, 48 or so hours removed from the announcement that Ricky Rubio could return to full-contact practice. There would be another day before the Timberwolves and their point guard could get on the court together, and you had to imagine Adelman, even Adelman, would be getting excited.
But not quite. "Are you excited to get Ricky back out there with the team?" warranted not even a flicker of emotion other than the blank acceptance of reality.
"It's a tough situation," Adelman said. "He needs to get on the court and play, and like tomorrow we don't have a lot of players. It's not something that's compatible today."
But for his first practice on Sunday, it had to be compatible. On Sunday, in fact, the team needed Rubio, needed him in order to field just 10 players for practice with Chase Budinger, Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko (back spasms), Kevin Love (still sick) and Malcolm Lee (sore groin) out. Rubio participated in the limited practice, in 5-on-5 play and drills. He worked with the training staff, head athletic trainer Gregg Farnam and physical therapist Andre Deloya, shooting, dribbling, and running the length of the court.
It's hard to learn much from a first practice like this one. The team kept things short, hoping, Rick Adelman said, that it could go longer tomorrow in the event that some of the injured players return. J.J. Barea joked that though he was guarding Rubio, he couldn't get a sense of how limited he was because Barea himself isn't moving at full speed on his left foot, which he sprained Nov. 7. It's gimp guarding gimp as the team transitions back to health -- or so they hope.
In many ways, Rubio's return came at an opportune time. It was early, of course, which trumps all, and it was at the beginning of a stretch in which the team would have a three-day break and then a four-day respite beginning Dec. 8. That really does outweigh the negatives, the fact that there is so little the team can do to ease him in, that Love didn't participate in this first Rubio outing. That weighs on Adelman, of course. How could it not? But in the big picture, Ricky's back, and no matter how that came about, no matter the questions swirling around the team, that's a good thing.
And so of course his teammates are going to be excited. Of course Barea is going to say that things went well, that Rubio is moving better than he imagined he would move. Of course Josh Howard is going to be slack-jawed at the pass Rubio bounced through his legs. These are all good things, yes, but with the progress Rubio has made, they're to be expected.
For his part, Rubio was pleased with what he did Sunday. He thought his defense was slow, he said, but he seems realistic about the inherent jump in difficulty from his workouts to actual practice. Conditioning will be the biggest issue, and after being the last player to finish running, he was visibly winded, joking that "I feel like I've run a 10K or something like that."
But he's not surprised. Leave that to the teammates who might have expected his court vision to be shaky, his instincts dulled. Of course he had issues, Rubio said. He expects them, and they're hardly spelling doom. Of course this was new, his years-long career now a novelty. He expected that too. Of course he was thinking about that knee.
"I'm trying to not think about it, but sometimes when you do a hard cut or something like that, you realize that you've been out for a long time and your knee is breaking in," Rubio said.
He added that the post-practice work he did with Farnam and Deloya was focused on that notion of thinking about the knee. It was as mental as it was physical, that time, in which the training staff helped him identify how to work through minor in-game and in-practice knee problems. They're teaching him the difference between "big pain," which signals stop, and other things that are just a natural progression of the recovery.
"I have a couple (issues), but it's just like not a big deal," Rubio said. "I'm just thinking a little too much. It's like, I don't want to, but it's just like the conscious that you do."
And now he's ready for tomorrow. So is Adelman, for that matter. So is the rest of the team. Tomorrow means a chance for another practice, a chance for people to return, more distance from the piling-up injuries. But tomorrow also means more questions: Any better idea when you're returning, Ricky? How about you, Coach, what do you think? And there won't be answers. Not today. Not tomorrow. Talk of Rubio's return will just set Adelman off, his voice cracking as he urges patience and defers to the training staff.
Rubio's return is still something of a stress. Him practicing doesn't change that. It has to be done right, as close to perfectly as possible. Adelman and the training staff can't let the needs of the team overshadow the needs of the 22-year-old point guard, and this will be a delicate balancing act as everyone continues to throw out dates and guesses and uninformed prognostications.
So of course Adelman's shoulders sag a little when the debut is brought up. He's tired of hearing about it. He's been thinking about it for coming up on nine months. But ask him about Rubio, now that he's back on the court, back being Ricky. As Adelman about his innate skills, about all the little things he does that were back in full force Sunday, and he's forced to smile.
This is Ricky Rubio, after all. The coach can't help but be just a tiny bit excited.
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