Ricky Rubio is one major step closer to returning to the court for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Rubio got the green light from doctors on Wednesday for full-contact practices, the last major hurdle he needed to clear in his recovery from torn ligaments in his left knee.
The team still has not set a timetable for Rubio's first game action, but just the thought of getting the dynamic point guard back in uniform is a big lift to a team that has been beset by numerous injuries early this season.
"Life is good!" Rubio tweeted on Wednesday evening.
His slick passing, sunny attitude and overlooked defence on the perimeter energized the Timberwolves last season, helping a long-suffering franchise climb into the playoff picture in his first year in the United States after coming over from Spain. But he tore his ACL late in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 9, and the Wolves' season quickly unraveled after that.
"We just have to have him practice for the next couple of weeks and see how he responds," coach Rick Adelman said. "We've missed him a lot. Once we lost him we saw the impact he had on our group because of his leadership — and not just at the offensive end. He defended people better than most point guards."
Even with Rubio expected to be out until mid-December, this season started with hopes of the team's first playoff appearance since 2004. Then All-Star Kevin Love broke his right hand in the preseason, Chase Budinger tore the meniscus in his left knee early in the regular season and Brandon Roy's knees continued to give him problems. Love made his season debut just last week, but the Wolves lost the first three games in which he played while they got acclimated to having him back on the court.
The Wolves were without forward Andrei Kirilenko against the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday because of back spasms.
Love had 23 points and 24 rebounds in a win over Sacramento on Tuesday night to snap a five-game skid, and now the Wolves receive word that Rubio's return is just around the corner.
"He'll be eased in," Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn said in remarks on the team's website. "The likelihood is he'll play his first game around 16-18 minutes and then from there the medical staff and Ricky will determine on a game-by-game basis what to do next."
Rubio started participating in walk-through portions of practice early last week and coach Rick Adelman said it was clear in those situations that he has not lost his aptitude for the offence and what will be asked of him when he returns.
"Anybody who's going through an injury like that is going to have his ups and downs, and I was aware of that," Adelman said. "So we don't want him to push himself. This is for the long haul."
Just when that first game comes is still to be decided. The Wolves played the Clippers in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, meaning a practice back home on Thursday was highly unlikely before they host Milwaukee on Friday. Minnesota has a three-day break between games after the Bucks come to town, so Rubio likely will get his first contact work in practice sometime this weekend.
They have a back-to-back at Philadelphia and Boston next week on Dec. 4 and 5 before another home game against Cleveland on Dec. 7.
The Timberwolves have said all along that they are going to be cautious with Rubio's recovery and not rush him back. He is too important to the franchise's future to risk further injury by running him out there too soon. At the same time, it's clear the Wolves desperately need their playmaker to get the offence flowing more smoothly and to tighten up some porous perimeter defence that has led to some huge nights from opposing backcourts in the last week.
With Budinger out for three to four months, Adelman has been forced to use a small backcourt of Luke Ridnour and JJ Barea for large stretches of games, which puts the team in a bind defensively against bigger guards. Rookie Alexey Shved has been a pleasant surprise after coming over from Russia, but the Wolves are still sorely missing Rubio's size and feel for the game.
And while Rubio no doubt will immediately make the Timberwolves better, Adelman cautioned last week that fans have to be patient while he works his way back.
"We have to be careful about the expectations," he said. "He had a serious injury. You want him on the court and everything but you're going to have to judge how quickly. ... He's going to have his ups and downs. But he's just the type of young man that he's going to get through it. He's just going to have to have the type of patience himself."