Ricky Rubio’s eyes got as big as saucers as he took a look at the large media contingent lying in wait to speak with him before Monday’s game against the Toronto Raptors. He did an abrupt U-turn and disappeared behind closed doors.
It was yet another smooth manoeuvre from the 21-year-old basketball prodigy from Spain, whose backcourt presence with the Minnesota Timberwolves this season has helped inject a buzz around the franchise not seen since the days of Kevin Garnett.
That buzz invaded the Air Canada Centre for a game against the Raptors, who happen to have a Spaniard point guard of their own in Jose Calderon and is a close friend of Rubio’s having played together for years on the Spanish national team.
The two went out for dinner in Toronto on Sunday night after Minnesota arrived in town following an afternoon game in Washington against the Wizards. Calderon picked up the tab.
Calderon was hoping for a more favorable disposition in the game – and he got it in the form of a satisfying 97-87 Toronto victory over Minnesota (3-6) that snapped a two-game losing skid for the Raptors (4-5) It was a good way to start off what will be a tough week for the Raptors, who were playing the first of a back-to-back-to-back set that will stretch into five games in six nights before the week’s conclusion.
Coming off two lousy performances against the New Jersey Nets and then the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, the Raptors played with renewed vigor, especially at the offensive end where Andrea Bargnani enjoyed a monster outing.
The power forward led Toronto with 31 points while hauling in nine rebounds and played a large role in helping to contain Kevin Love, Minnesota’s leading scorer, to just 13 points.
Chosen fifth overall by the Timberwolves back in the 2009 draft, Rubio opted to continue to play professionally in his native Spain – he has been playing in the Euroleague since he was 16 – for the next two years before deciding to dip his toe in the NBA.
Although he is still coming to grips with the glut of media attention he has been receiving so far this season there is no doubting the talent level of the slightly-built man-child, who earned a silver medal playing for Spain in the 2008 Olympics as a 17-year-old.
“Rubio is special,” Casey said of the 21-year-old Spaniard, who has already recorded two double-doubles on the season and leads all NBA rookies in assists at 6.7 a game. “He gets to where he wants to go, excellent passer. He’s developed his shooting which makes him a double threat.”
Although Minnesota coach Rick Adelman is opting to start games with Luke Ridnour at the point, Rubio is getting plenty of action off the bench.
Monday night, Rubio accounted for eight of his 10 points in the first half where he was on the court for fewer than 15 minutes.
Entering the game for the first time late in the first quarter, Rubio drained his first shot – a 24-foot pull-up jumper from the left elbow that cut Toronto’s lead at the end of the frame to 27-25.
In the second quarter, Rubio alertly stuck a hand in front of a Raptor pass for a turnover that led to a monster one-handed jam at the other end by Anthony Randolph.
Randolph was fouled on the play and when he sank his free throw the Timberwolves possessed a 41-37 advantage with just over seven minutes left in the half.
The game remained close until late in the fourth quarter where Toronto’s Amir Johnson rammed home a Bargnani miss at the iron that gave the Raptors 82-80 lead.
A James Johnson block on the defensive end led to a 19-foot jumper by Calderon at the other end and the Raptors were on their way.