Ricky Rubio left the floor after Game 3 on Saturday night with a half-grin on his face, half-satisfied at the halfway juncture of eliminating the Thunder in the Jazz’s first-round playoff series — two wins down, two to go. He was physically and emotionally embraced by his teammates on his way out.
Just as he was by the Vivint Arena crowd at the end of the third quarter when he hit a bomb at the buzzer to hand the Jazz a 14-point lead, all as the fans chanted: “Ru-bi-o … Ru-bi-o … Ru-bi-o.”
The chants went up again in the fourth quarter of a 115-102 Jazz win.
Why wouldn’t they? Rubio racked up a triple-freaking-double — 26 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists — en route.
“He was all over the place,” Donovan Mitchell said, “doing amazing things.”
It was all reminiscent of the celebrated hug shared between Quin Snyder and Rubio moments after the Jazz qualified for the playoffs, which was more than a small token of congratulation. It represented the faith Snyder had placed in the point guard and the path Rubio had traveled to make the coach’s faith worthwhile.
More personal than just that, the gesture from both directions was one of gratitude and gratification.
Said Snyder on that occasion: “When you see a player really grind and work and invest and deal with adversity, to share in that journey and then to see him have success, that is unbelievably gratifying.”
It was competitively rewarding, too.
“We wouldn’t be in the playoffs without Ricky,” Snyder said.
They wouldn’t have won Game 3, either.
As Mitchell and Rudy Gobert have been seen as the difference-makers for the Jazz in their season of surprise, the grit of Rubio also was and is vital.
“He just holds himself to a really high standard,” Snyder said. “And eventually, if you do that and you’re working on the right things and you care, you break through.”
Rubio did exactly that for most of the season, and he did it under the push and pull of playoff pressure here, too.
With the Jazz struggling in the second quarter, falling behind at one juncture by 11 points, the point guard hit shots all around, scoring 19 first-half points when few others seemed able to contribute. Eventually, he stirred his teammates to join in, which they did in a big way.
Not bad for a man who had been cast off by the only NBA team for which he had played — the Timberwolves, who decided during the offseason to send him packing. And the Jazz were Rubio’s safety net, cast under him at the urging of Snyder.
Some thought Rubio, at the still-young age of 26 (now 27), was washed up and washed out. His six previous seasons in the league had revealed that he could pass and play some defense, but he could not shoot, he could not finish at the rim, and he could not lead a team to the playoffs.
He was proved right months ago and again in a game that gave the Jazz a 2-1 lead in this first-round series. Snyder’s approach with Rubio was to douse him with encouragement — to not only emphasize what he already had mastered, but to explore what he had not.
The fruits of that exploration were on display on Saturday night — in the form of 3-pointers, runners, fade-aways and jumpers off the pass and off the bounce. All of that after getting 22 points, nine assists and seven boards in the Jazz’s Game 2 victory.
Remember those moments of discomfort for him early in the season? They were nowhere in sight against the Thunder. His play, instead, reminded everyone that whenever Rubio played well this season, the Jazz thrived.
Just like they did on Saturday night.
“He’s a great player who turned it on at the right time for us,” said Derrick Favors. “A lot of people are surprised by the way he’s shooting and the way he’s playing offense. But the guys saw it all the way back in training camp. He was hitting shots, making plays, getting to the rim, making plays for other guys. He’s played great for us.”
Seems the castoff, the playoff neophyte has found a home in Utah, where he is needed in ways he’s never before been needed.
“I feel great here,” Rubio said.
To beat the Thunder in this series, Rubio will be counted on to run the attack, to steady his teammates, to hit those big shots, to do all the things nobody thought he could — until Snyder gave him the chance.
Consider that faith rewarded now.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.