MINNEAPOLIS For eight months, time has been Ricky Rubio's enemy. Time has been the months remaining in his rehab, the weeks until his next doctor's appointment, the eternity, it sometimes seemed, since the last time he played.But now, time is trickier.It took exactly eight months and one week from the day of the point guard's surgery to repair the torn ACL and LCL in his left knee to Nov. 28, the day he was cleared to return to practice by his surgeon, Dr. Richard Steadman. It was a fast recovery, but not necessarily surprising; throughout the process, all news was that Rubio was recovering quickly, on schedule, without a setback.It's all been so smooth, just like everything else with Rubio. It's proceeded like the most well-executed checklist: biking, conditioning, shooting, jump shots, lateral movement, all building toward this Ricky Rubio, the one we saw at the Timberwolves' Friday shootaround. Apart from that knee sleeve and his lack of jersey, he was just another player, in his practice clothes and mingling on the court.Ricky is back sort of. And in the sort of is where time remains so tricky.Sort of means he's cleared to practice, but it's blurry beyond that. When he'll return, he has no idea, and you've got to imagine this is going to be the most pragmatic of processes. This is not a situation like Kevin Love's, when they could throw him out there by surprise and feel okay that nothing would happen. This is an ACL, a knee, the joint that's killed and maimed so many other careers.Rubio knows that. He's spouting the party line, about having no clue when he'll return, about how these first few practices will tell a lot, about patience and restraint and thinking about the big picture."I think the most difficult part is being patient," Rubio said. "You can't do more than they say because you can get hurt. Being patient is hard. It's hard but it is what it is. You just have to work as hard as you can and that's it."He sounds so much wiser than his 22 years in those moments, and you have to believe him. He's in no hurry to get out there and bust his knee, and he's still worried about the state of his conditioning, which can be the biggest shock after returning from eight months without playing. There's still a bit of pain sometimes, Rubio said, most likely a result of just getting back into shape, and that has to nag at him, to remind him to take his time.It's been eight months, after all. What's another week or two, especially when Rubio's NBA future is a thing of years and years? And Rubio, the consummate pro, the child-star who's so far from a bust he knows that.The trickiness isn't in waiting for that debut. He'll be asked about it everyday from now until the blessed occasion, and he'll probably field the questions with the same banal answers. We'll see. We're being patient. I'm getting there. And that's okay. Because once the patience runs out, once Rubio gets there, time is still going to be even more of a battle.Because the next step after that debut, after he first walks onto the court, is to negotiate how many minutes he gets each night. It was so easy for Rubio to say a few weeks ago that it would be gradual, building from just a handful to his usual starter's 30. He still knows that's how it's supposed to be, but like anyone who's been deprived of something he loves, Rubio also knows that once he gets his first taste of live basketball well, they're going to have to drag him kicking and screaming from the court."I don't think so," Rubio said when asked if he'll be able to restrict his minutes. "But I will have to. That's what the doctors said, that the first games we'll have to limit the minutes, which I say okay, but once I'm out there, I don't think I can handle that."And there it is again, that notion of time, of too much and not enough and no idea what's just right. For Rubio, this process is far from over. He'll be pushing himself forward while concurrently holding himself back, and no matter how much his eyes lit up when he revealed that yes, he expected to be cleared that day, that it was no surprise, he knows that this isn't all fun and games from here on out.The next days of practices will be an experiment. How much can he do? How much can't he do? What can he do today that yesterday was a struggle? He'll be limited by his label "recovering from injury" and by the things he's still working toward. Ricky Rubio, the freest, most fluid of players, must for a time be put in a box, constrained, but for a greater purpose, so that someday, he can again be Ricky Rubio.That Ricky Rubio. The one who plays basketball in a way that makes you never want to stop watching.
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