Following Saturday night’s game, Quin Snyder recalled a moment in the third quarter when Utah’s 15-point lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers had dwindled to seven as the Jazz’s second unit struggled for a bucket.
Ricky Rubio drove in on a key possession, then dribbled back out, leaving his defender caught in a screen. He sank a 10-foot jumper that his team sorely needed.
It was little plays like that from Rubio which Snyder said added up big in a 16-point, 10-rebound and 8-assist performance in the 104-101 win over Cleveland on Saturday night.
“I thought Ricky was terrific,” Snyder said. “Ricky was the guy that got us going. I think you could feel his intensity, his activity on the defensive end. Whether that was when he switched off, (or) guarding the post. He just fought all the time.”
For much of the year, Rubio’s fight has felt more like an overall struggle to find his place on the Jazz (16-21).
After kicking off the season with back-to-back double-digit assists, the veteran point guard whom the Jazz traded for in June has averaged a three-year-low in most key shooting percentages, while averaging a career-low 4.9 assists per game to go with three turnovers per game.
That’s not what was expected from a guard who annually ranks among the top 10 in assists in the NBA (8.1 apg. career average) — neither was the sketchy defense which has seen Rubio become one of the most picked-on perimeter defenders in the league.
PELICANS AT JAZZ
When • Wednesday, 7 p.m.
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But Saturday night (which was also the night he received the NBA’s Community Assist award for his stellar off-court contributions) felt like a change of pace. Was it a good game, or is Rubio reaching the long-awaited stage of clicking with his new team?
The Jazz, who sorely need Rubio to succeed at the most banged-up position on the team, hope it’s the latter.
“[With] Ricky, it’s been a process,” Snyder said. “He’s gonna keep getting better. Tonight was a night where you saw some things come together that he’s been working on.”
Watching Rubio in Utah has sometimes been like watching a tornado: The long-haired Spaniard always seems to have energy and pace, but not always direction. There’s been segments where he carelessly throws passes away to the defense, or when he sends a pass hurtling to a teammate that’s unexpected. His shooting, below average throughout his career, is boom-or-bust.
But Utah needs him to succeed as much as ever: While the Jazz have Donovan Mitchell at point guard at times this season, the rookie needs more seasoning there, and his dynamic scoring ability can be enhanced with off-ball possessions. With Dante Exum possibly out for the season and Raul Neto out for nearly a month with concussion and knee issues, there’s not a lot of players to give point guard minutes.
Bottom line: Rubio’s not being benched.
Rubio has played some clunkers: In the forgettable blowout loss at Oklahoma City last month, he had one assists to five turnovers. Before his near-triple-double against Cleveland, he hadn’t had eight assists in a game since Nov. 11.
But in his past five games, there’s subtle signs he’s picking things up: He’s averaging almost six assists per game in that stretch. His turnovers are down, and he’s only had six total in his past four games. His rebounding is up (6.4 rpg.) and he’s found some ability to contribute on the glass when shots aren’t falling.
If nothing else, the Cavaliers game seemed like Rubio playing most naturally: enjoying himself and staying aggressive. He said he wasn’t upset by being pulled late in the game two assists short of the organization’s first triple-double since 2008 — he hadn’t realized how close he was to getting one.
“Just playing, of course,” he said. “The numbers add up there.”
If things keep adding up for Rubio, that would be fine for Utah.
Now and then: Ricky Rubio’s season
Points • 11.4 ppg (11.0 career)
Assists • 4.9 apg (8.1 career)
3-point shooting • 28.7 percent (31.1 percent
eFG shooting • 44.2 percent (41.8 percent)
Assist-to-turnover ratio • 1.62 (2.9)
PER • 12.3 (15.8 career)