By Jon Krawczynski
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MINNEAPOLIS _ Ricky Rubio is one game away from returning to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Rubio has been cleared to play on Monday against the Dallas Mavericks, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press on Saturday. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because an announcement has not been made.
Rubio has been out since severely injuring his left ankle Nov. 7. He will have missed 43 games because of the injury, and the Wolves sunk to the bottom of the league without him.
They are 8-38 entering Saturday night’s game against Cleveland. When he returns, the team plans to restrict his minutes until after the All-Star break while he sees how his ankle responds.
Rubio signed a four-year, $54 million contract extension before the season and helped the Wolves get off to a promising start before going down with the first ankle injury of his career.
The slick-passing point guard’s return is the latest in a series of important developments on the injury front for the Timberwolves, following Nikola Pekovic’s return from a 31-game absence due to foot and ankle issues on Jan. 21 and Kevin Martin’s return on Wednesday from 34 games away with a fractured right wrist.
The trio was expected to lead the way for the Wolves early in the first season without Kevin Love, whose trade to Cleveland ushered in yet another rebuilding plan for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004. President of basketball operations and coach Flip Saunders envisioned a “blended” team as he called it, one in which the veterans like Rubio, Martin, Pekovic and Thaddeus Young did the bulk of the work while rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine and sophomores Anthony Bennett, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng could ease into things.
That all faded in the fifth game of the season when Rubio stepped on the foot of an Orlando defender on a drive to the hoop. He suffered a severe sprain and damage to muscles and ligaments from his ankle to his toes.
The Timberwolves were 2-2 at the time with tight losses to Memphis and Chicago. But Rubio’s absence forced LaVine to play out of position at point guard and veteran Mo Williams to shoulder more of the playmaking responsibility after signing a one-year deal last summer.
They lost the first five games without Rubio, Pekovic’s chronic foot problems returned later in that same road trip and Martin broke his wrist on Nov. 19. The Wolves won just three times in 32 games, effectively burying themselves before the new year even started.
Rubio’s return is the key, with his pass-first mentality and ability to defend at the point expected to bolster the Wolves’ lacklustredefence and hasten the development of Wiggins and the rest of the younger players.
Rubio has been pressing hard to return to action, but the Timberwolves are taking no chances with their franchise point guard. Saunders said last week that doctors cautioned a premature return could bring on a stress fracture, which would result in another long absence.
Wolves doctors and athletic trainer Gregg Farnam have closely monitored his progress. He started practicing about two weeks ago and has been going through strenuous workouts prior to each game this week to work his way back.