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The Magician: Ricky Rubio Is Leading the Wolves

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Rubio dished and dazzled on Monday night to extend his streak of marvelous play.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Minnesota Timberwolves Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

After suffering an early season elbow injury that kept him out of five straight games, and adjusting to Tom Thibodeau’s new system that pushed the young core to take control of the offense over the first two and a half months, Ricky Rubio has responded by playing the best basketball of his career over the past two months.

Since surviving another trade deadline, Rubio has been better than ever before. The Wolves are 6-3 since the All-Star break and he is averaging 14.9 points on 57.2 percent true shooting — he is 26th in TS% among qualified point guards now — to go with 11.8 assists, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.9 steals over this time frame. His shooting splits are 45.5/39.1/85.4, which is as good as anyone could ask from him.

On Monday night, Rubio’s outstanding play continued at Target Center as he broke his own single-game franchise assist record — previously 17, which he’s done five different times — with 19 assists in the Wolves impressive 119-104 home win over the Washington Wizards (41-25, third in the Eastern Conference).

But the assists weren’t the only way Rubio contributed last night. The 26-year-old point guard added 22 points, five rebounds, and three steals in 39 minutes of marvelous play. It was only the second time in his career he has scored 20 or more points in back-to-back games (Mar. 12-13, 2013).

This is arguably the most aggressive Rubio has ever been offensively. He’s actually shooting with no reservations right now. Over his first 35 games this season, he was attempting only 6.0 shots per game and 2.7 free throw attempts. Over the last 25 games, those averages have increased to 9.7 shots and 4.4 free throw attempts per game.

Rubio is looking for midrange jumpers early in the shot clock when defenders are sagging off him to shrink the space Towns and Wiggins have to operate. The opposition also expects him to defer to teammates, as per the usual, but Rubio seems more willing to shoot and attack the rim than he ever has and that shift in mindset has clearly helped his offensive efficiency and overall effectiveness.

Rubio was able to score 17 points (to go with 13 assists) in the win over the Warriors last Friday because he went to the line 11 times and didn’t miss. Many defenses are also daring (begging might be more accurate) him to hit three-pointers and since his breakout night against the Magic on January 30, when he made a career-high six threes, he’s shooting 39 percent from deep (1.2 makes per game over the last 19 contests).

His 10 assists in the first quarter last night matched the most by an NBA player in a quarter this season (Chris Paul, 10 in the third on Dec. 10). It was also the franchise record for assists in a quarter but the real story isn’t the magical passing clinic he put on, but rather the opposing guards he has now outplayed in the last week. Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and John Wall have all come to Minneapolis only to leave with losses after being outdueled by Rubio and the Wolves.

“I’m just glad I was here to watch history, to be a part of it,” Karl-Anthony Towns said about Rubio’s 22/19/5 performance after scoring 39 points and grabbing 13 rebounds himself. It was just another night at the office for the best young big man in the game.

“It was just amazing to see him play out there,” Towns continued, as he raved about his pick-and-roll partner in crime.

“It was like watching a movie and you never get to hear the stats you just hear the same person keep making the play and you wonder how many stats you got ... Ricky was just throwing dimes. I don’t know in my career if there will be another better time for me to be in foul trouble so I got a front row seat to watch.”

Rubio has played brilliantly before but the way he operated and dissected the Wizards in the first quarter and throughout the night — giving an extremely talent point guard in John Wall everything he had — was truly remarkable to witness.

I wondered for a moment if Scott Skiles, who owns the record for most assists in one game with 30, was somewhere out there turning League Pass on to make sure his record was going to stay intact. It was arguably the best quarter of Rubio’s career, and possibly the best game he has ever played in the NBA.

Shooters can get in a zone. Can you get in a zone as a passer?

“Absolutely,” Rubio said. “Some nights you see things a little different and it gets easier. Tonight in the first quarter I really saw different things out there and I was trying to set the tempo from the beginning and be aggressive.”

Scott Brooks was pleased with the Wizards five-game road trip but said his squad didn’t have their best stuff on either ends tonight. “Give them credit, they played well, they made a lot of shots and they moved the ball well. Rubio was running the ball all over the place to their shooters and they were scoring,” Brooks said.

John Wall was asked about what made Rubio so good last night. “He made shots. He made open shots,” Wall said. “We went under the screens, he made shots, and about every time he passed it to Brandon Rush he made shots. It’s easier to get assists when a guy on your team has 39 points. It means he’s in a rhythm and he’s mostly the guy passing it to those guys. He’s one of the best passers in the league and does a great job of running their offense.”

As Rubio walked off the court late in the fourth quarter with the game in the books, the Target Center crowd rose out of their seats to give him the standing ovation he deserved after putting on a magical show that no diehard Wolves fan will soon forget.

As the Wolves play meaningful games in March for only the second time in his career, Ricky Rubio is showing the league why so many local fans love him.