As Andrew Wiggins drove the lane in the closing seconds Friday against the Thunder, all five Oklahoma City defenders were in his immediate vicinity.
Two were directly challenging him. Three more were keeping an eye on him while also clogging up passing lanes. But nobody was within 15 feet of Ricky Rubio when Wiggins deftly slung the ball to his wide-open teammate for a three-pointer.
History tells us this is a good strategy. But this time it backfired. And not only did Rubio drain the shot to give the Wolves a 99-96 victory, but he also held his hand up high after the release in a pose shooters linger on when they are confident a shot is going to fall.
It continued an encouraging stretch of play from the Timberwolves and their point guard.
In his past 18 games, Rubio is shooting 43.8 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from three-point range. Those small sample numbers represent a significant spike in his overall career marks of 36.7 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from three-point range.
It’s also notable that after shooting only 33.3 percent on shots at the rim (3 feet and under) in 2014-15, Rubio is above 50 percent from that distance this season.
It’s too early to say Rubio has turned a corner. After all, it was only three months ago that I wrote a long account of how statistics show his place in history among the worst shooters in the NBA.
But there is significance in those improved numbers and in that flourish Rubio had as he waited for Friday’s shot to sink the Thunder.
Like pretty much any athlete in history, Rubio thrives on confidence. If you’ve ever seen Rubio knock down 10 three-pointers in a row — as I saw at a recent Wolves practice; I swear it happened — you can see how one made shot leads to another with him.
Rubio actually was close to being a league-average three-point shooter in his rookie season of 2011-12, making 34 percent of them before a torn ACL ended his year after only 41 games. In his only full year in the NBA, 2013-14, he made 33.1 percent.
In other seasons, injuries — and perhaps the self-doubt they create — have tended to flatten out his shot and knock down his percentages.
Rubio’s overall value to the Wolves cannot be overstated. As of last week, he was one of only 15 players in the NBA with more than 1,000 minutes played whose team was at least 10 points better per 100 possessions when he was on the court vs. off the court. That list includes such players as LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry.
Rubio never will be Curry, another point with whom he always will be linked thanks to the 2009 draft. Wolves officials, coaches and fans have long held out hope that Rubio would at least become Jason Kidd—a bad shooter early in his career who made the three-pointer a big part of his arsenal later.
Is what we’ve seen from Rubio in the last month and a half a step in that direction? Time will tell.