December 3, 2012

WHEN RICKY STOPPED SMILING:

The Ricky Rubio Experience : Playing against Ricky Rubio is harrowing, but the point guard prodigy is playing against more than just his match-ups. (FLINDER BOYD, 11/28/12, The Classical)

The first time we played Spain was an exhibition in Seville. A couple minutes into the game, I stood next to him at half court during a free throw and wondered what all the fuss was about. Despite the presence of All-Stars Pau and Marc Gasol and local legend Juan Carlos Navarro, the sold-out crowd couldn't get enough of Ricky. From middle-aged men to teenage girls, everyone screamed his name; there was literal ooh-ing and aah-ing each time he touched the ball.

And yet he seemed to me to have no discernible physical gifts. He weighed 170 pounds dripping wet, wasn't nearly as Iverson-quick as I expected him to be and it took him a Mesolithic era to get his shot off. Of course, it was in my interest to believe all this. I'd been given the task of trying to shut Rubio down.

At only 5-11, I made a career out of being the smartest player on the court, understanding the nuances it takes to play the most difficult position on the floor. I'd spent the better part of the day studying tape, checking Rubio's tendencies and searching for weaknesses in his game, especially in the pick and roll, his bread and butter.

The pick-and-roll, elementary though it seems, is the single hardest play to perfect in all of sports and the basis of any good basketball team. Once a screen is set, a good point guard will go through his reads like a quarterback. Navigating through the matrix of defensive possibilities, he reacts to the other nine guys on the floor, then counter-reacts and possibly further counter-counter-reacts as the court shifts into a geometric puzzle, all in the blink of an eye. That super-fast dynamism is one of the fundamental challenges of basketball: hold the ball a split second too long, what was open has surely been gobbled up by time and space, and you're left at the defense's mercy. Years of practice and hundreds of games on, you begin to see the same patterns develop. Then, finally, a complex problem opens enough to reveal a straightforward solution.

Halfway through the first quarter, Rubio called for a screen on the right wing. I bodied him up, forcing him out of his operating zone, then quickly dove under the pick. We had planned to change up our defensive tactics often against the kid, to confuse him and get the ball out of his hands sooner than he wanted. He shifted to his left hand, then paused, just for a moment, switched hands again and used the screen again. I jumped over the pick, and my big man, the long, athletic Joel Freeland, held firm. Suddenly, like a racecar driver, Rubio changed gears from third to fourth and then fifth in the space of about three feet. I fought through the screen, and just when I thought we had him bottled up he froze for a millisecond, waiting for the defense to collapse. Then, at that exact right moment, Rubio flipped it right handed over to an open Navarro on the money. Navarro drove to the hoop and our collapsing defense fouled him before he could get a shot off. Ball out of bounds. A completely meaningless play in the scheme of the game. Also, though, a perfect play.

A few plays later, on a fast break, an open Navarro was in the corner, and Sergio Llull, another great shooter, was on the same wing guarded. There are several things that could have, and ordinarily would have, happened in this situation. Rubio might have lobbed it over to Navarro, allowing the defense to react and forcing Navarro to penetrate and make a play himself; that would ultimately ruin the fast-break. Rubio could have waited for the trailer, or simply dribbled to the opposite side of the floor where there was limited resistance. Rubio did none of these, instead making a beeline straight toward the defender. In essence Rubio, his defender, Llull and Llull's defender all converged at the intersection on the wing. It was a kamikaze play that no coach would ever teach, yet Rubio's choice ensured that the defense couldn't recover when he fired a bounce pass through a keyhole size opening to Navarro. Three points.

It was personally demoralizing, in a way that perhaps only people who have played the position would fully understand. What took me decades to decode seemed to be hardwired into his brain; he was playing with information I didn't quite have, while running an operating system different than my own. I felt like I was trying to catch an antelope with a butterfly net. No matter what I did or how quickly I beat him to the spot he'd make the right play at just the right moment.

And yet, curiously, Scariolo rarely took the reins off and let Ricky be himself. For much of the game Rubio would just slouch in the corner as a decoy, sucking his teeth and rolling his eyes like a petulant teenager.

A month later we met again in the European Championships in Warsaw. This was a game in which we nearly beat the mighty Spaniards, and from the opening tip it was clear the walls were closing in on Ricky. He was overthinking. When he had the ball, I almost stopped guarding him, playing, five and even ten feet away, daring him to shoot. At other times I almost completely forgot he was on the floor.

He'd given up probing the defense and attacking the paint, in favor of pointless swing passes around the perimeter. Strangest of all, he had stopped running the break, instead walking it up and surrendering to Scariolo's deliberate play calling. It made my job easier, but it was almost tragic watching the future of basketball banished to the bench every time he made a turnover, his head wrapped in a towel while politely cheering on his teammates. The kid with the permanent grin and unshakable confidence had stopped smiling.
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Posted by at December 3, 2012 4:51 AM
  
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