For Ricky Rubio, the waiting has been the hardest part.
Now that Minnesota's dynamic young point guard is achingly close to playing in his first game in nearly nine months, Rubio says it's important to be patient with his recovery from torn ligaments in his left knee. He was cleared to return to full-contact practice this week and is expected to practice this weekend, but it's still too soon to tell when he will be able to play in a game for the Wolves.
"I don't want to think about dates, 'cause I don't want to rush it," Rubio said Friday after the team's shootaround before a game against the Milwaukee Bucks. "I want to feel like (I can) practice, and (worry) nothing at all about my knee. When that time comes, I will be ready."
Rubio tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee late in a game against the Lakers on March 9, derailing a thrilling rookie season for the Spanish import that helped make the Timberwolves relevant again after years of wallowing at the bottom of the Western Conference. He had surgery on March 21, and started the first significant rehabilitation program of his basketball career. The laborious process took the fun and creativity away from a game that's consumed him since he was a young boy.
"I think the most difficult part is being patient," Rubio said. "You can't do more than they say because you can get hurt. Being patient is hard. It's hard, but it is what it is. You just have to work as hard as you can and that's it."
Rubio has been participating in non-contact work with the Wolves for the past two weeks. He says the mobility in his knee is just about 100 percent, and he's anxious to see how it responds to his first practice, which could come as soon as Saturday.
"I think I feel great, but what they're saying is once you're playing basketball it's different," he said. "You can do whatever you want. You can run a lot. But then practice, it's just different. In the game, it's just different than everything else you do. They were saying I have to do running, do sprint, and after a couple things I will be exhausted, but I want to feel that."
The Timberwolves have been adamant throughout the process that they won't rush Rubio back. He's too important to the long-term health of the franchise to risk further injury for the sake of an extra win or two in December.
That said, the sooner he's back on the court zipping behind-the-back passes and alley-oop lobs before an adoring fan base, the better for a Wolves team that has struggled to find a consistent offensive flow without him. Luke Ridnour and JJ Barea haven't been able to get the ball moving from side to side as freely and easily as it did when Rubio was pulling the trigger.
They've also played at a much slower pace than coach Rick Adelman has historically preferred, turning games into grind-it-out affairs based heavily on the pick-and-roll in the halfcourt. With Rubio last season, the pace was much quicker, baskets were easier to come by and his defense on the perimeter made a huge difference as well.
Injuries to Kevin Love, Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger, Nikola Pekovic and Barea have also factored into the change in approach. But Rubio is the straw that stirs the drink in Minnesota.
So when will he play in a game?
The Timberwolves hosted the Bucks on Friday night, followed by three days off before a back-to-back in Philadelphia and Boston next week. The team has yet to announce a practice schedule, but they are expected to workout at least twice before hitting the road, and quite possibly on all three days as they try to get Rubio back up to speed.
The chances of Rubio playing in the back-to-back next week would seem slim given the team's stated approach of easing him back into things. That means a possibly playing a home game against Cleveland on Dec. 7, or perhaps a home game against Denver on Dec. 12 after four more days off.
"After the first or second practice, I will know more where I'm at," Rubio said. "Because right now I can practice, but I don't know how I will feel after my first practice."
Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn said Rubio likely will start out with about 16-18 minutes of action in his first few games. Rubio knows that's probably for the best, but he doesn't have to like it.
"That's what the doctors said, that the first games we'll have to limit the minutes, which I say OK," Rubio said. "But once I'm out there, I don't think I can handle that. But it's going to be coach's decision to put me on the court."
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