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Ricky Rubio — The man inside the arena

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Ricky Rubio has the game of his life on the NBA’s biggest stage: the NBA Playoffs.

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Back in January, not even Ricky Rubio’s most dedicated fans could have predicted a night like the one Ricky had tonight against the Oklahoma City Thunder. A triple double by Ricky Rubio while he leads his team in scoring and to a win in the playoffs? Get outta here. In January, the Utah Jazz were nine games below .500. Ricky Rubio did not look like the Rubio the Utah Jazz thought they were getting in the trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Jazz fans were starting to wonder what that draft pick sent to Minnesota could have ended up becoming had Utah not traded for the Spanish point guard. Ricky Rubio was hovering around 28% from three until game 41 of the season. He was turning the ball over at a career high and wasn’t a net positive when he was on the floor with a +/- that was negative. He was part the worst starting lineups in the NBA. Then it all changed. This Ricky Rubio renaissance was not impossible, but it was in the realm of “hell freezing over” in terms of probability.

Impossible seems to be a theme for this Utah Jazz season. A rookie drafted number 13 leading his team in scoring and to the playoffs? Unprecedented in recent history. A team overcoming a loss deficit of 9 games to end the season 13 games over .500? Never done. A team returning to the playoffs after losing two of their top offensive weapons in free agency then trading their third top scorer, then cutting their 4th? That’s not just improbable, that’s a Moneyball script. After witnessing those events, seeing Ricky Rubio turn into one of the best scorers at the point guard position in the league is enough to make you go, “Sure, why not?”

Ricky Rubio’s post All-Star break stats don’t even look like the same player. He’s averaging 15 points a game while shooting above 40% from three. Ricky Rubio’s previous high above the arc was 34% when he was a rookie—seven years ago. He’s taking more shot attempts 11.6 a game than he has ever taken in his career all while playing a couple minutes less per game. His assist totals went down, but his rebounding numbers went up. His +/- while on the court changed dramatically. Rubio is a +10.0 after the All-Star break. He’s a new player.

Quin Snyder can take credit for a big part of this improvement. We all snickered when Dennis Lindsey compared Ricky Rubio to Jason Kidd in July. It was the day after Gordon Hayward had burnt the Utah Jazz in his wake of indecision, and it appeared like Dennis Lindsey was trying to give the fanbase any reason not to toss themselves off a cliff. When he compared Ricky Rubio to Jason Kidd, most of us said, “Well maybe they’ll emulate that, give him some game tape, and maybe he can pick up some tricks.” We didn’t anticipate that Quin Snyder and his coaching staff would ACTUALLY turn Ricky Rubio into Jason Kidd and then throw in a three point shot just to show off.

Ricky Rubio said in the summer that Quin Snyder immediately reached out to the point guard to start picking his brain, and figure out how they could build the team around him and his style. Quin wanted to know what worked and what didn’t. The two kept in contact while Ricky was playing with Spain during Eurobasket. Rubio casually mentioned he never had a coach do that. Snyder invested not only time and strategy into Rubio, but he invested his trust. And the results have been staggering.

Ricky Rubio not only has improved his game exponentially this season with hard work and help from the coaching staff, he has instilled a culture that was set ablaze and then salted over by the exits of Gordon Hayward and George Hill. Ricky Rubio at one point was looking at the eventuality that Utah could be significantly worse than his Minnesota Timberwolves were last year. In January, that reality was staring this team right in the face after their loss to the bottom feeding Atlanta Hawks. At that point Utah was closer to the #1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft than they were to a playoff appearnce. Yet Ricky Rubio helped change it. The next night this Utah Jazz team fought in Detroit to get to overtime and turn their season around. The next game Utah went to Toronto, and against the best team in the East, Ricky Rubio hit the game winning three to give Utah the win over the Raptors.

Ricky was always positive influence in the locker room. Rubio rekindled the bro-mance with Joe Ingles that they had while playing in Europe. He built chemistry with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. He became a mentor for the phenom in training Donovan Mitchell. He was complimentary of his competition for minutes, Dante Exum. During the throws of terrible losses, he played his damn heart out even when the Jazz were down double digits. Ask any Jazz fan, coach, or player to think of a game in which Ricky wasn’t playing full speed. You can’t. Ricky Rubio would play a basketball game against a seven year old on a Fisher-Price hoop like it was an elimination game in the playoffs: full focus, sacrificing his body, and unbridled passion.

During the rough months, it was INCREDIBLY hard to criticize the puppy dog eyed point guard. While the results were not there, Ricky Rubio personified what Theodore Roosevelt described as the “man in the arena.”

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

-Theodore Roosevelt

There are some players that when they’re struggling, they quit or take plays off. They check out. They under-function. Ricky Rubio is like Steve Rogers, the kid from Brooklyn, that just doesn’t know when to give up. He just isn’t capable of walking away from a fight. That’s what made watching Rubio worth it until he turned it around in late January. Even though you were frustrated with the results after a loss, you saw a man who was fighting. You saw a man who was giving his heart. He was giving his all despite coming up short “again and again.”

I remember saying in the end of December that it looked like Ricky Rubio’s three point shot had more arc in it. It wasn’t going in, but there started to be small victories. He started hitting that midrange jumper with regularity. His turnovers declined. The lineup that was death for Utah with Rubio, Favors, and Gobert turned into the Death Lineup for opposing teams. His three began to fall in January coinciding with Gobert’s return to the lineup and Donovan’s special season. If at any point, Rubio stopped making progress, Utah isn’t here on this stage enjoying this moment.

So, miraculously, here Ricky Rubio is: the 2018 NBA Playoffs; he’s getting the star of the game interview after leading his team to a victory while having a triple double in the playoffs joining another Utah Jazz great to do it in the playoffs: John Stockton.

Looking back at this season, when Rubio failed, he failed “while daring greatly.” Rubio has ensured that his place with Utah will “never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Ricky Rubio is not just the man in the arena. He’s now become Utah royalty to be forever engrained in the living folk lore of Utah Jazz basketball.