MINNEAPOLIS Ricky Rubio answered the question like there'd never been a doubt.
Yes, he said. Yes, he'll be playing in Oklahoma City Wednesday night, tomorrow night, really, when he said it. And tomorrow night implies back-to-back, which is just what the Timberwolves are facing and just what Rubio has heretofore been banned from.
"My first back-to-back," he said. "Finally."
He said it as if he's already sat through several, as if the second games of back-to-backs had been the bane of his existence for weeks. In reality, the ban has only affected Rubio once, Dec. 18 in Miami; he was out with back spasms last week for the Utah-Denver series.
But Ricky Rubio does not like the bench, not a bit. He doesn't like being anywhere near those folding chairs, especially when it matters, especially when his team needs him. And so even that one forced DNP was as frustrating as a month's worth. That's just how the point guard is programmed.
Rubio exited Tuesday's 108-103 win with 8:11 remaining in the fourth quarter and his team up 11. Even then it was excruciating to sit, no matter that he looked like he'd just sprinted a marathon when he checked out for the final time. He'd scored four points all on free throws and logged eight assists and four steals in 18 minutes of play, looking as comfortable as he'd looked since his Dec. 15 debut against Dallas. When asked how he felt after the game, his first word was "tired."
"My instincts are there," he said. "But the legs are not there yet."
After missing four games with back spasms, Rubio's conditioning has suffered, but his level of acclimation to his teammates and the pace of the game seems to have improved. He got in several days of practice before making his return, and it showed on Tuesday.
"I think he felt more comfortable tonight," assistant coach Terry Porter said after Tuesday's game. "I think he's always been aggressive. I think tonight he just felt a little bit more comfortable, really looking to turn the corner."
"All in all, I just think he did a good job of being the floor general for us when he was on the floor, getting guys to the right spots."
And so in a season in which it's seemed like Rubio has taken two steps back for every one forward, another move comes Wednesday. No matter how tired he feels or how draining 18 minutes might seem, another dose is slated for 24 hours later, and you know he's looking forward to it. There comes a point, really, when conditioning and resilience must be force-fed; Rubio's knee is feeling good, as is his back, he said, and at this point, it's a matter of establishing a rhythm and a pace that he can sustain. It'll be a challenge, no doubt, especially against one of the Western Conference's best teams and best point guards in Russell Westbrook, but it's a welcome one.
"First, let's see how the legs are, and back, knee," Rubio said. "I think it's going to be a good test."
Regardless, it'll say a lot about the point guard's progress nearly four weeks into his comeback, and perhaps the training camp period may be coming to an end.
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