MINNEAPOLIS — Ricky Rubio swiped the pass in the open court and darted down the lane with Derrick Williams on his wing. Rubio zipped the kind of behind-the-back pass that made him a sensation in Minnesota during his rookie season, the kind of flashy play that put rear ends in the seats at Target Center and made the Timberwolves one of the most exciting young teams in the league last year.
This time, the pass landed right in Nets forward Gerald Wallace's gut for a turnover and everyone — the fans, his teammates and Rubio himself — was reminded that the magic of last season was a long, long time ago.
Ten months after surgery on his left knee, Rubio is still shaking off the rust. It's been a process filled with frustration.
The only thing slower to come around than the breakup of the scar tissue in his knee are the crunch-time minutes he desperately craves and the victories he helped deliver for the Timberwolves before he was injured last season.
It has all tested Rubio's patience and positive outlook like never before. It reached a boiling point Wednesday night against the Nets when Rubio walked to the scorer's table to check into the game with about four minutes to play. While he was waiting, J.J. Barea hit a 3-pointer, so acting head coach Terry Porter decided to stick with Barea down the stretch rather than go back to Rubio.
The smile that was a fixture on the Spaniard's face most of last season was nowhere to be found, and teammates Derrick Williams and Nikola Pekovic had to pull him aside during a timeout to offer words of encouragement and calm him down.
"TP preferred to play the players we were playing," Rubio said after the game, still smoldering from the decision.
"I don't know what to say."
The cute, cuddly Ricky Rubio — the one who posts pictures of bunnies whispering to each other on his Twitter account and preaches positivity above all else — was nowhere to be found in that locker room, replaced by an angst-ridden 22-year-old who hasn't recovered from the torn ligaments last March nearly as quickly as he was hoping he would.
In the 14 games since his season debut last month, Rubio is averaging 4.2 points. 5.0 assists and 2.4 turnovers per game. He is shooting just 24.6 percent from the field and is 0 for 11 on 3-pointers and still feels some discomfort in his knee on occasion.
"Sometimes I want to penetrate and I don't feel like I have the power to do it," he said this week. "Maybe I have it. But it's like, sometimes, that confidence has to come back... So you have to try to find some space to work on that, then do it in the games, too."
Rubio has been on a strict minutes limit since his return aimed at safely easing him back up to full speed. With Rick Adelman away tending to his sick wife, Porter has been instructed to keep Rubio at 28 minutes per game for the time being.
Rubio has been pushing for more because he thinks that is the best way for him to get the feel, the timing and the conditioning back. Barea committed five fouls in about five minutes, was torched by C.J. Watson on the defensive end and played uneven offensively in the fourth quarter.
But Porter wanted his scoring punch in a lineup missing Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy to injuries. A day later, Rubio and Porter had yet to discuss the decision, but planned to before the team left town for a game at Washington on Friday.
The Wolves have lost seven of their last eight games and are in danger of fading from playoff contention.
"I'll have to talk to him," Porter said Thursday. "Everybody's frustrated, I think, with the whole situation and there's nothing wrong with that. From a competitive standpoint you want guys to be frustrated when they don't get a chance to play in the fourth quarter."
Williams sat the entire fourth quarter as well. He said he's seen Rubio that upset before, but usually it comes behind closed doors and not in public.
"Ricky's a competitor," Williams said. "He wants to play. We were both in that situation yesterday. You've just got to keep your head high, stay focused. We've got more games to win."
Rubio said after practice that he understood why Porter made the decision he did, but didn't hide his desire to be on the floor in the game's biggest moments.
"I was hot and of course there is respect for the teammates who were on the court," Rubio said. "I'm going to say the same thing always. I always want to play, even when I don't deserve it. I have ambition and I want to play and I want to try to help the team and I want to be in there in the last minutes."
Rubio said he respects Porter and is sure they can get back on the same page. And he isn't ready to give up on recapturing his mojo this season just yet. "I don't want to think about next season," Rubio said.
"I don't want to lose this season. I live in the present and I want to do as good as I can right now and I'm going to work as hard as I can to get healthy this season."