It can be a little disorienting to remind yourself that grim and gritty Ricky Rubio, the veteran point guard of the Utah Jazz, has played exactly the same number of playoff games over the course of his NBA career as Donovan Mitchell has. Rubio, whose transformation from doe-eyed, baby-faced sidekick to leathery, slicked-back, thickly-bearded mercenary must surely have been caused by all those harrowing battles fought in bloody trenches; and Donovan Mitchell, who is literally a rookie.
The impetus to remind yourself of this fact—that all three of Rubio’s career playoff games have been played in the last seven days—follows the impulse to seek context for what Rubio did against the Thunder in Game 3 of their playoff series: a game-high 26 points on 18 shots, plus 11 rebounds, 10 assists, a pair of steals, and a decisive edge in his matchup with Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. As it turns out, that it was a career-best playoff performance isn’t really saying much. Still!
Utah trailed by eight points after the first quarter Saturday night, and trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half. But the Jazz turned momentum in the second quarter with a huge 20-4 run, largely led by an aggressive scoring turn from their otherwise pass-first point guard. Rubio scored 15 points in the quarter, on an eye-popping nine shot attempts, or nearly twice as many as any other player on either team took in the frame. Rubio missed five of his six three-point attempts in the quarter—where his fresh-faced former self might’ve gone into ultra-passive mode, grim and gritty Ricky Rubio kept right on attacking. War changes you, man.
My favorite Rubio highlight from that stretch came at the 4:24 mark of the second quarter, when Rubio barely drew iron on a deep transition three from the right wing; when the badly missed shot caromed directly back to him, rather than reset the offense or swing it to Joe Ingles or force the action inside, Rubio—cigarette dangling from his lower lip—punched the ball to the elbow and rose up immediately into a mid-range jumper. Fuck it, man. It’s not the very best shot in the world, but first of all it went in, and second of all, a huge part of how the Jazz are unlocking Oklahoma City’s defense is by forcing them to actively defend everyone on the floor at all times. Rubio, once a notoriously shot-averse ball-handler, has to be willing to take open shots when he’s in rhythm. His next two makes were basically heat-checks: a tough pull-up jumper over Melo to answer a Thunder bucket; and a step-back transition three-pointer to give the Jazz the lead. Either of those shots would’ve been inconceivable for the Rubio who once played in Minnesota, before he’d been hardened by a life on the rails or whatever.
Rubio went 5-for-5 on mid-range jumpers in the game, and did most of his scoring from outside; just one of his nine buckets came on a layup—his last one, to stretch the Utah lead to 19 with about 3:30 left in the game. Kara Lawson correctly described him as the best guard on the court, and his excellence did not go unacknowledged by Westbrook, who was extra salty after the game:
The Thunder might be in deep shit! For sure they will need to find a way to get their offense going against Utah’s mighty defense—OKC’s 99.4 offensive rating over these last two games is more than eight points per hundred possessions lower than what they produced in the regular season, and their trio of stars has shot a ghastly combined 37-of-101 from the floor over the two losses. The teams play again Monday night, in Utah. The Jazz lead the series 2-1, and their home crowd is amazing, and tough-ass Ricky Rubio is taking no prisoners.