MINNEAPOLIS Gambling. It's a word with negative connotations, its syllables hinting at seedy casinos and losing money, at unwise choices and recklessness. It's not the kind of word a coach wants applied to his players, especially on the court.
That's why over and over, Rick Adelman has said no. No, Ricky Rubio's risky-looking plays aren't gambles. No, the rookie isn't flinging a pass behind his back on just a hope and a prayer. Rubio is smarter than that. Each play he makes, no matter how quick or unexpected, is calculated, an investment in winning.
To suggest to Rubio that his flashy plays are for show is to induce a steely glare from the otherwise-pleasant point guard. For a player who's been a pro since age 14, who's continually been surrounded by older more experienced players and spent the majority of his career coming off the bench, the concept of the individual is almost foreign. To Rubio, it's always team first, and perhaps that's why he's had the most constructive reaction to Kevin Love's two-game suspension.
Love will miss Tuesday's game against Sacramento and Wednesday's game in Memphis, and without his 25 points and nearly 14 rebounds per game, the Timberwolves will need to increase production from other sources. Individual players will have to take on bigger roles, but a team effort will be crucial to finding any measure of success.
At times, though, that can be a hard concept for players to grasp. With a starter like Love out, backup forwards Derrick Williams and Anthony Tolliver know that their opportunities will be greater. Often that leads to an emphasis on the individual I need to do better, I need to score this many more points rather than a more team-centric approach to games.
"It's just going to be up to us individually to pick up our games," Tolliver said, adding that he believes each player needs to get two or three more rebounds in Love's absence.
Such precise goals are often constraining, and though there's nothing wrong with a player pressuring himself to make the most of his opportunities, there's danger in not thinking about the ways a team needs to adjust to compensate for a missing player. Tolliver said that in games, Love corrects for the mistakes his teammates commit; so instead of focusing on better individual stat lines, it would make more sense for Tolliver and his teammates to find ways to avoid or minimize those mistakes on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Rubio is another player whose stat line could see a boost from Love's absence. The rookie point guard has had 11 pointassist double-doubles this season, and each time he's fallen short of a triple-double it's been due to a lack of rebounds. On Jan. 30 he came the closest he has all season to a triple-double, but his eight assists weren't enough. With no Love, Tuesday's game against Sacramento could be Rubio's best shot at a career first, but that's hardly the way he's looking at the game.
"I mean, there's a lot of rebounds to take without him because he takes a lot of rebounds," Rubio said. "But we will try to win. That's all."
That's all. There are not specific point or rebound goals for Rubio, no mention of anything he needs to do individually.
We. We. We. We will try to win. We will see. We have to step up.
Rubio knows that he alone can do little to make up for the loss of the team's biggest offensive force, and these two games are the furthest thing from an opportunity. They're a challenge, and for a player as competitive as Rubio, winning matters more than anything.
"I just play," Rubio said. "Stats are fun to watch, but it's nothing if you don't win. You just want to win, no matter how many points, no matter how many rebounds, no matter how many assists. The most important is the team win."
Rubio doesn't have a concrete plan for playing without Love. He might take more shots, he said, but he might not. He'll have to see how the game unfolds, to wait and decide what approach is best for his team. That flexibility is a far cry from some of his teammates' specific goals for what's needed out of them this week, and perhaps Rubio has an attitude borne out of confidence. Players like Williams and Tolliver, less experienced at starting and playing big minutes, might need to be more rigid in their approaches, but they'd certainly benefit from listening to Rubio.
Of course the Timberwolves will enter Tuesday night's game with a strategy. But this year's team has never played without Love, so that plan could be wrong. Being able to adapt, to alter goals and work together, will be crucial, and no one player will be able to compensate for Love. Rubio knows that, and if some of his teammates don't, they'll quickly learn.
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