Ricky Rubio is the heartbeat of the Timberwolves.
Without him in the lineup the team has become an absolute train wreck, losing five straight road games after an impressive 9-0 run that finished off the Brooklyn Nets only 11 days ago to put the team at .500 (2-2).
For those that questioned Rubio's recent contract extension (4-years, $56 million), citing his scoring woes and inability to finish at the rim as core reasons to be weary of a long-term deal, it may officially be time to re-evaluate that conclusion. Saturday night in Dallas provided further validation; Rubio's worth exceeds far beyond the box score.
Not to undermine the absence of Thad Young, who has missed the last two games due to the death of his mother and is arguably the second best player on the team, but it's Rubio who sets the tone. The energy and passion he plays with on both ends of the court is contagious; his floor presence and leadership is undeniable.
So how valuable is Rubio to the Wolves? Well, that popular question is in the midst of being answered.
With him on the shelf for at least the next month, nursing a serious ankle sprain, the team has taken several steps backwards and Saturday night's loss to the Mavericks provides further evidence of his worth. The team is respectable with him and utterly terrible without him.
A day after the Wolves allowed 139 points and lost by 48 in New Orleans, a franchise record for margin of defeat, the Dallas Mavericks matched their own franchise record with 76 points in the paint and cruised to a 131-117 victory over Minnesota (their highest scoring output of the year). For those paying attention, that's 270 points in the last two games and two individual team records freshly pressed in the books.
On Saturday night at American Airlines Center, Monta Ellis was the only Mavericks player to log more than 30 minutes (35). Ellis scored a season-high 30 points on 11-21 shooting, while Tyson Chandler posted 12 points, 16 rebounds (7 offensive), and 3 blocks in 24 minutes of dominant play. For the Wolves, Kevin Martin scored a season-high 34 points on 12-17 shooting, including 4-6 from long distance. But the matchup between Martin and Ellis essentially became a dual of shooting guards disinterested in guarding one another. Shocking, right?
Mo Williams bounced back from a rough six game stretch, scoring 13 points and dishing out 8 assists in 29 minutes (5-10). Shabazz Muhammad also had a nice game, dropping 18 points (6-7 from the field, 5-5 from the line) to go with 4 rebounds in 14 minutes. Both players, along with Martin, did their best to keep the game respectable, but none of their performances can mask the negatives.
The defensive effort by the Wolves was nothing short of embarrassing. The Mavericks got into the lane at will and there was no rim protection whatsoever; stimulated by a severe inability to cover the pick-and-roll. It was a soul-crushing display of defense for the second night in a row, which dropped the Wolves to 2-7 this season and 1-6 away from Target Center.
What's next? The team will trek back to Minneapolis and take three days off before starting a four-game homestand against the New York Knicks on Wednesday (November 19). According to Corey Brewer, this is wonderful news (via Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune): "We need to go back home," Brewer said. "I never missed Minnesota this much in my whole life."
Some Words from Flip:
- Anthony Bennett made his first career NBA start after coming off the bench in his previous 59 appearances. He had 10 points, 7 boards, and 4 assists in 29 minutes, but played poor defense on Dirk Nowitzki and Al-Farouq Aminu.
- Gorgui Dieng scored in double-digits (12 points) for the 4th time this season and added a team-high 8 rebounds. HOWEVER, his rim protection was awfully awful. Chandler and Brandan Wright (13 rebounds, 5 rebounds) torched him all night. At one point, after an easy dunk by one of the Dallas big men (I can't remember which one), Saunders called a rage timeout. He and Sidney Lowe walked out on the court and started to grind Dieng for his cruddy defense. It was a rough showing.
- Mo Williams scored 13 points after tallying just 15 points in his previous five games. It's only fitting that his best game in two weeks came against J.J. Barea (14 points, 5 assists) and the Dallas Mavericks.
- The Mavs scored 131 points and shot 55.3% from the field. They entered the game averaging 107.1 points per game (1st in the NBA) on 48.2% shooting (2nd) this season.
- The Mavericks had only seven turnovers on the night. The Wolves had 17.
- Flip Saunders said Pekovic was experiencing some soreness in his right foot after the game, which limited him to only 12 minutes. Pek sat out the entire second half, which caused some folks to speculate that he was benched for poor play. He definitely looked exhausted running up and down the court, and wasn't especially productive on either end in those minutes, but that doesn't mean he was benched. Here's my question: why would the Wolves play Pekovic anyways? Regardless of production, the team's ultimate goal is keep him healthy for the entire season. This game was clearly over at halftime. I'm much more inclined to believe this was a precautionary move rather than an outright benching.
- Shabazz Muhammad led all bench scorers with a season-high 18 points in 14 minutes. Why does this matter? It's probably time that Saunders hands his first official draft pick more consistent playing time off the bench. If the Wolves aren't going to win many games in the next month, a likely occurrence without Rubio in the mix, they might as well take a long-term approach and develop Muhammad over the likes of Chase Budinger and Corey Brewer. Muhammad still has plenty of refining to do, most notably in the passing department (he's basically a black hole offensively), but his all-around effort and nose for the basket is self-evident.