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A Ricky Rubio resurgence is key to Suns’ slim playoff hopes

Phoenix Suns guard Ricky Rubio (11) walls off the court following their NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

There are reasons to suspect why there has been a dip in Ricky Rubio’s performance for the Phoenix Suns this season.

He won the 2019 FIBA World Cup with Spain during the offseason and was named the tournament’s MVP. He played eight games in 16 days to win that tournament, and with the 29-year-old having played a legitimate role professionally in Spain since he was 16, there are some extra miles on his odometer.

That, unsurprisingly, has led to some up-and-down play and some injuries in the first season of his three-year deal with Phoenix.

While being listed on the injury report with knee, ankle and back issues, Rubio hasn’t been the same player since an apparent injury that he didn’t actually miss any time for, nor was listed on the injury report beyond one game for.

At the start of January, Rubio slipped on a wet spot that wasn’t cleared off the floor at Staples Center. The result was a nasty-looking fall, potentially with an injury to his groin or hip.

Up until that game against the Lakers, Rubio averaged 14.2 points per game and shot 41.7%. Since then he’s dropped off to 10.7 points per game on 38.1%.

Rubio has looked like someone who needed a break and was playing through something.

Rubio wasn’t available after shootaround on Wednesday to comment on his health or his play this season but that much has been obvious watching him.

Rubio also had his first child in mid-January, the month he also happened to shoot 36.6% from the field in.

After taking time off for his child’s berth, he returned to shoot 10-of-18 for 25 points, eight rebounds and 13 assists against the Knicks on Jan. 16.

He continued to struggle after that brief blip but has looked better in three games since the All-Star break, a spurt that has made it clear how important Rubio’s play is to the team’s success.

The evaluation that some had of what Rubio’s arrival would mean on the court, myself included, was a bit off.

Rubio was seen as a stabilizing force for the Suns that would keep things chugging on both ends, particularly offensively, where his leadership and on-ball acumen would be a huge boost for Phoenix and Devin Booker. He would make sure the right guys were getting the ball at the right time, control the tempo when necessary and so on. He would be able to do that even when not playing all that well.

As it turns out, the Suns have needed the impactful Rubio much more, the one that does actually jump out beyond the little things. When he’s blending into the background and letting everyone else take command, that’s when things go wrong and he gets out of rhythm.

The Suns are 14-1 this season when Rubio posts a plus-minus that is plus-10 or higher. In the 13 games Rubio has taken more than 12 shots in, the Suns are 8-5.

This is an example of the Rubio we saw for Spain. As soon as he sees that Aron Baynes’ pick is in place, he knows exactly where Utah’s drop coverage will sit and that he can comfortably get into a mid-range jumper. He’s on the floor without Booker and needs to provide some offense.

Deandre Ayton comes over for a pick of his own on this play, but Rubio improvises seeing a feasible-enough window to the basket and knowing Rudy Gobert is a step away because of Ayton.

Decisive, shooting Rubio is good Rubio. Across those statistics that indicated a drop-off in Rubio’s production, he took 12.3 shots per game when he shot 41.7% in 27 games. Since the new year turned, Rubio is taking 8.8 shots per game and has shot 38.1% in 23 games.

That is not to say that Rubio is a strong offensive option for the Suns. At the end of the day, he is an inefficient player because he relies heavily on touch shots in the mid-range area while not possessing the necessary good touch. Rubio has taken below 30% of his shots at the rim for each of the past six seasons, which isn’t a terrible idea because he has shot league average or above at the rim only once in his career.

This is more like coach speak that typically earns a, “Bah humbug! That’s nonsense!” response from fans and media alike: But the Suns are better when Rubio is attacking at a certain level offensively, even though it’s technically not “good offense” sometimes.

The main parts of this equation are working very well together. When Rubio and Booker are together, the Suns score a terrific 116.3 points per 100 possessions.

But as he should given the team’s lack of depth, head coach Monty Williams likes to stagger Rubio and Booker when he can, which is where Rubio looks to step up. When Rubio plays without Booker, though, the Suns are generating only 98.1 points per 100 possessions, an awful number.

Those minutes the Suns are going to need to get the capable version of Rubio the most. If they struggle while Booker is playing, they’re flat-out screwed anyway. When Booker has a neutral or negative plus-minus, they are 1-28. For real. That hopeless.

With poor play behind Rubio and Booker on the depth chart throughout the season, Rubio’s supplementary offense becomes a necessity.

That’s a mitigating factor when it comes to Rubio’s shooting, and there are others too.

Ayton’s return from suspension meant fewer shots for the point guard, but it should also be a way for him to capitalize more off the gravity Ayton creates.

That’s an adjustment he’s had to play through more than anyone else on the team. Ayton’s mid-season insertion meant a different way for Rubio to play. Remember, the main appeal in Rubio coming to Phoenix was that he could have an effective two-man game to set up Ayton.

Having to develop that midseason has been a setback for the two, as they haven’t quite gelled as nicely as one would have hoped. The best signs of chemistry between the two have come in the team’s last pair on the road.

The aforementioned offensive rating numbers are still decent when Ayton and Rubio share the floor at 111.4. It’s needless to say, however, that Rubio getting Ayton to roll hard and providing him free buckets to bring more energy out of Ayton is a boost the team needs.

All of this is a fairly longwinded way of saying that Rubio has been fine outside of this stretch in 2020 when he clearly hasn’t been himself. And even then, Rubio is always going to help to a certain extent no matter what.

His playmaking is the key cog in the Suns’ successful ball movement and he’s third in the NBA in assists per game at 8.7.

Teammates have gotten used to Rubio’s presence as a transition threat and have their heads up at all times watching him to make sure if the ball is coming.

Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr. never make eye contact on this play because Rubio wants the defense to key on Ayton and Oubre is still ready for the pass.

Booker releases here in transition knowing a kick-ahead of some sort is probably coming, and Ayton going right back to Rubio is another checkmark of Rubio recognition.

Defensively, Rubio’s 2.8 deflections per game are right alongside Oubre (3.1) and Mikal Bridges (2.8) as guys who disrupt and rank highly across the league in that mark. He leads the team in loose balls recovered per game (1.3) and steals per game (1.5). The Suns’ defensive rating jumps over three points when Rubio is off the floor.

Rubio’s impact is there even when it’s not felt. When he has an ugly game, you can really feel that, however, and that’s part of why he’s taking some of the top criticism from the fanbase this season.

His style and lack of offensive pop was never the perfect point guard for Phoenix to sign, nor even a great option when ranked among others, but point guard was a vital need to fill and they did with a good player.

That’s what Rubio is, and he needs to prove that he can sustain it over these last 24 games. If he can, the Suns are just close enough to the eighth seed where they could make things interesting.

All statistics and video courtesy of NBA Advanced Stats and Cleaning the Glass


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