CLEVELAND – As Ricky Rubio checked into the game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Jan. 16, a loud ovation from Cleveland Cavaliers fans rang throughout the arena.
Rubio, who was traded had just stepped onto the court for his first home game in 380 days since tearing his ACL injury on Dec. 29, 2021. It was only his third game back following that ACL tear that ended his previous season. He was a key part of the Cavaliers’ early-season success last year, but was traded to the Indiana Pacers as part of the Caris LeVert deal before returning to Cleveland as a free agent.
“When we were talking about when it was going to be the day, I had a lot of emotions the first day, but yesterday as well. Being back home and knowing what I went through last year,” Rubio said last week. “It was good to see they want me here.”
Rubio made his season debut in a road win over Portland on Jan. 12 and scored nine points in 10 minutes of action. So far, he’s played in five games and rested the first game of a back-to-back against the Golden State Warriors on Friday for injury management.
Coach JB Bickerstaff said they had planned to not play Rubio in back-to-backs starting out. He did, however, play 12 minutes against Memphis on Wednesday, 19 minutes against Milwaukee on Saturday, and then he’ll have another opportunity to take the court as the Cavs head to New York to face the Knicks on Tuesday.
The 32-year-old guard is still playing on a minute restriction, which will continue to increase as the team staff monitors his response to game action. The most minutes he has played in a game so far this season is 19 minutes against the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 21.
Rubio admitted last week that he is still getting adjusted to playing at a high level again.
“(It’s) super hard,” Rubio said. “I mean, when you have a longer spurt, first you get a feeling of the game, then you get a feeling of how you feel, and what the game and the defense gives you. And then when you figure yourself out and then you got to figure [it] out again at the point of the game. So of course it’s hard, but it’s what the doctors recommend.
“When I had a longer stretch (Jan. 12), I felt more active, more productive out there. So I’m looking forward to that moment. But it’s something that is part of the process. I knew that coming in, it’s not going to be easy.”
But that’s all part of his recovery process, and Rubio understands that. This isn’t the first time he’s dealt with an ACL injury, after all. Rubio suffered a torn ACL as a rookie in 2012 when he bumped knees with Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant in a game.
But this time around, Rubio said the recovery process is different. During the first ACL injury, he didn’t know as much about being injured and what it took to get back on the court. Now, the 12-year veteran is at a different point in his career, and he’s putting in the extra work to take care of himself and his body.
“I work hard and feel the best I’ve felt in my career,” Rubio said. “But now, it’s time to really like everything I did off the court, or not in the game, translate it to the game. The speed, everything is different. Feels a little weird, still, but getting there.”
As Rubio gets his feet under himself once again and eases into the Cavaliers’ rotation, he’ll look to make an impact whether it’s bringing his energy and veteran presence to the younger guys or increasing the tempo when he’s on the floor. He knows how to use his strength and speed to get to the basket and attack.
Rubio also has a high understanding of the game, how he can orchestrate, teach and share the game with his teammates. Bickerstaff believes that Rubio makes his teammates better offensive players because he knows how to put a pass on time and on target, and he knows how to get teammates the ball when they have an advantage. That it will all translate as he continues to work his way back.
“He just brings the group together,” Bickerstaff said. “He gets everybody calm. He understands the togetherness that’s needed, and when times are most difficult, he understands how to bring the group together. And I think everybody needs that and they believe in him and his ability to do that.”
Even through his first five games, Rubio is making his presence known. He has aa positive +/- of 1.4 when he is on the court. The Cavs also have an offensive rating of 114.6 when Rubio is on the floor, and a defensive rating of 106.8 when he is on the floor.
Many of his teammates also view Rubio as another coach on the floor. Lamar Stevens recently shared how Rubio has changed the way he thinks of the game from a mental perspective.
“Ricky really talked to me about meditating and how he does that before every game and just how important he thinks it is,” Stevens said. “He said something to me like he prepares himself mentally as if he’s already been through the games so he’s OK with him however the game goes. Whether it’s successful or not, he’s already put his mind through that. That’s something that I really admired and really respected and kinda started implementing in my routine. I think Ricky, from on the court, off the court, is just a big-time leader for us.”
Rubio’s presence and spirit is a large part of the Cavs’ team chemistry. It’s why the Cavs wore themed t-shirts that sported the phrase “difficult roads always lead to beautiful destinations,” on the night Rubio made his season debut.
“Difficult roads always lead to beautiful destinations.”
— Bally Sports Cleveland (@BallySportsCLE) January 13, 2023
Rubio was awarded the Junkyard Dog Chain that same night. The locker room erupted in cheers, applause and barking as the chain was placed around his neck by Stevens and Raul Neto. Bickerstaff acknowledged the training and work Rubio put in to bring himself back this season, but also what Rubio’s overcome.
“There’s a very rare group of people that have a presence that he has and that guys just want to be around and listen to,” Bickerstaff said. “Ricky is that guy.”
(Photo of Ricky Rubio: Sam Forencich / NBAE via Getty Images)