Updated: December 30th, 2011 11:34pm
Zulgad: Ricky Rubio's play in defeat should earn him starting job

Zulgad: Ricky Rubio's play in defeat should earn him starting job

by Judd Zulgad

MINNEAPOLIS - Ricky Rubio comes off as far too deferential of a young man to ever suggest that he should be starting for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

But one would assume that after Friday night, Wolves coach Rick Adelman is going to end this pattern of holding out Rubio until late in the first and third quarters of games so that Luke Ridnour can eat up minutes.

The Wolves dropped to 0-3 with a last-second 103-101 loss to the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat before an announced sellout crowd of 19,356 at Target Center, but there were few who left the building feeling as if they hadn't gotten their money's worth.

One of the primary reasons for this was Rubio.

He played 30 minutes, 51 seconds - Ridnour was in for 17:09 - and finished with 12 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and five of the Wolves' 25 turnovers. He made four of seven field-goal attempts, including two of two from three-point range, and two of three free throws.

Rubio's assist total was a season-high and did not come as a surprise given the rookie's ability to dish the basketball was what got him drafted fifth overall in 2009.

"He's a clever passer," Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said. "Two or three times he had me looking the wrong way."

But what Rubio really has proven three games into his first season in the NBA is this: Statistics and box score lines aren't going to come close to telling the story of what he can bring to the court.

Rubio's stats in the Wolves' four-point loss to Oklahoma City on Monday and three-point loss at Milwaukee on Tuesday were similar. Yet, anyone who saw him play both games noted there was a significant difference in his confidence level and overall performance.

On Friday, with fellow point guard J.J. Barea out because of a hamstring injury, Rubio took it up another notch from Monday.

When he was on the floor, the Wolves were a different and far superior team than they were with Ridnour. The 21-year-old Rubio never appeared as if he was playing on a stage that was too big.

At times it seemed to be Rubio who was setting the tempo, going against a Heat team that features the big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

The Heat made an appearance at Target Center last spring and fans filled the building to see James and his entourage. The Wolves might as well have been the Washington Generals.

On Friday, the building was packed in large part because fans were curious to see what Rubio and the Wolves could do against the Heat. Defeat was not an automatic.

Rubio didn't disappoint and a Minnesota sports crowd that is desperate to adopt an athlete as its superstar rewarded him at one point with chants of, "Roo-Be-O, Roo-Be-O!"

Behind one of the baskets in the lower level a group of fans again appeared to be Rubio's personal cheering section and showered him with chants of "Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!" in homage to his Spanish roots.

This does not mean Rubio did no wrong. He was far from perfect.

He missed a 15-foot jumper with 6:13 left in the fourth quarter that would have given the Wolves a four-point lead. Instead, Bosh tied it at 88 on a 12-foot fade away jumper after grabbing the rebound.

Less than a minute later, Rubio threw an errant pass that was stolen by James. Udonis Haslem made a layup on the Heat's trip down the court and Miami had a 90-88 lead.

But there was far more good than bad.

On Monday,  Rubio did not attempt his first shot until early in the fourth quarter. On Friday, he checked into the game with 3:40 left in the opening quarter and knocked down his first three-pointer two minutes later.

There was one sequence in the fourth quarter that brought the Target Center crowd to its feet and might have resulted in the building being its loudest since the Wolves made their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2004.

Rubio, who went back into the game with 3:11 left in the third quarter, put the ball in the hands of Wayne Ellington with 9:33 remaining. Ellington knocked down a 20-footer to cut Miami's lead to 83-79.

Heat rookie Norris Cole then threw a pass that Rubio stole. Rubio found fellow rookie Derrick Williams with a swing pass and Williams buried it from 25 feet to get the Wolves within one.

With the crowd already going crazy, Wade missed an 18-footer, Anthony Tolliver got the rebound and Rubio again guided the offense, this time going back to Ellington. He let go with a 23-foot jump shot that gave the Wolves a two-point lead.

With 2:28 left, Rubio hit a three-pointer to give the Wolves a four-point advantage.

Rubio didn't only provide a spark for the Wolves offense, but his presence also appeared to fluster the Heat on defense. Miami quickly realized that it was going to have to account for Rubio and James was put on him for the final few minutes.

"It was good," Rubio said. "He's tough. He is strong, he is a great player. He's really good and he knows how to play."

Rubio, who is listed at 6-4, 180 pounds, is no pushover himself. He seems to have zero problem with contact and at times even seemed to be initiating it with one arm while dribbling with the other.

In the aftermath of Friday's loss, Adelman and Rubio had little interest in discussing something that many Wolves fans certainly had to embrace as they streamed into the December night.

The fact this young team appears to be relevant for the first time in a long time.

Adelman was upset about the fact the Wolves talked on their bench that the Heat would run a lob play for Wade with 4.6 seconds left. Sure enough the Heat ran it and sure enough it worked to perfection.

Ellington missed a 21-footer as time expired and the Wolves remained winless.

"He did a great job of finding people," Adelman said of Rubio. "Again, we made some stops. We did what we had to do at the end except for that last possession, which ... that's a young team."

Said Rubio: "We want to win and we are young. We have to learn from these games. They found the right play for Dwayne Wade and made the basket. We have to learn about that. We have to be more ready; try to win more games because we have played three good games but we don't have any wins. That's what matters, wins and losses. We are 0-3."

The Wolves will try to stop from falling to 0-4 when they play host to defending NBA champion Dallas on Sunday at Target Center. By then, Rubio should be this team's starting point guard. 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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