Ricky Rubio providing a stabilizing voice for Cavs, who face elimination in Game 5

They’re already lost among the ghosts in Madison Square Garden, those two late triples Darius Garland hit in Sunday’s Game 4 loss to New York. Last-ditch heaves, when they can’t stave off a 3-1 series deficit, get clipped pretty quickly from highlight reels and water-cooler recaps. To Cleveland veteran Ricky Rubio, any glimmer of resolve, one strong moment in the face of adversity, is the building block to persevere in a life in the NBA — particularly a grueling playoffs.

“At the end of the day, the feelings and emotions are different from the regular season,” Rubio told Yahoo Sports. The 32-year-old floor general, the former boy wonder with the passing gene that once promised to pilot a franchise, has long preached balance amid this turbulent professional sport. Knowing the Cavaliers’ first-round clash with the Knicks marked Garland’s first trip to the postseason, he made sure to pull aside Cleveland’s All-Star point guard before this series even began. Rubio had an important message to deliver. He can decipher the noise of NBA narratives as well as anyone still roaming a locker room. He’s learned to acknowledge the elephant in the room, for all its relevant context, without crumbling under its weight.

“Once you’re out there, yes, the atmosphere, the playoffs are gonna feel like the fourth quarter all the time,” Rubio said. “But it’s basketball. It doesn’t change. The perception changes, but the basketball doesn’t change.”

Donovan Mitchell, the Cavaliers’ other combo guard who’s bound for All-NBA honors, is in his second stint as a Rubio mentee. Mitchell credits the Spaniard for instilling various wisdom over their two shared seasons in Utah, and maintaining equilibrium topped the list. “Never too high, never too low, that’s always been his thing. Kind of weathering the storm,” Mitchell said. “Whether you’re up by a lot, down by a lot. Whatever it is. Continue to understand to stay in the moment and continue to be level. That’s always something I’ve taken from him.”

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 12: Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff of the Cleveland Cavaliers talks with Ricky Rubio #13 during their game against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center on March 12, 2023 in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Ricky Rubio consults with head coach J.B. Bickerstaff during a regular season game in March. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Cleveland now has quite the tide to turn against New York, hosting the Knicks for a critical Game 5 on Wednesday night. It has no chance at doing so, quite frankly, without the composure Rubio has spread across the league for more than a decade. Remember those TNT cameras capturing Rubio in 2013? He was the Timberwolves’ floor general and wore a microphone for a national broadcast of Minnesota against the Lakers. Emerging from one timeout huddle, Rubio famously tousled the hair of teammate Alexey Shved, imploring his running mate to “change this face. Be happy.” Rubio’s brown eyes never broke contact, nodding along with his encouragement. “Enjoy!” he cheered at Shved.

Rubio’s ability to unlock the scoring guard who has flanked his dribble may be the veteran’s slickest trick. From Garland and Mitchell to Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards and Phoenix Suns sensation Devin Booker, Rubio has overseen the progression of many of this postseason’s biggest performers.

“He’s always in somebody’s ear, putting people in the right spots,” Garland told Yahoo Sports. “Just learning how to win, Ricky really taught me how to win.”

Rubio was once the phenom in need of perspective, the youngest player to ever appear in the Spanish ACB League at just 14 years old. When he began his career with Joventut in Badalona, Rubio was the backup to American veteran Elmer Bennett, a former second-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks. Rubio had watched Bennett win two Spanish King’s Cups, the ACB championship, and sharing a locker room with the Notre Dame product made a dream become his reality. “My English wasn’t really good,” Rubio said, “but I was trying to pick his brain.”

Bennett already spent more than a decade following basketball around the globe, including stints with several NBA teams in addition to European clubs. The nomadic lifestyle of a point guard for hire never brought Bennett much stability. “To learn from that experience, if you have some guidance, that helps for moments that there’s uncertainty and you can relate,” Rubio said. “And at the end of the day, we’re all going through the same thing, the ups and downs, it’s never steady. But that’s how you want to approach it.”

The Jazz targeted Rubio in 2017 to be their table setter, with plenty of ball-handling opportunities in the wake of Gordon Hayward’s departure for Boston. In walked Mitchell in his first year, and Rubio recognized early in preseason his responsibilities now included setting up the eventual Rookie of the Year more than most, like Bennett had for him. “The first ones are the ones who stick out the most,” Rubio said. “It’s something that we gotta share the knowledge.”

Coaches saw the passion in Rubio’s face when he’d clear a spot for Mitchell to fire an open 3-pointer. He’d swing possessions so Mitchell could operate in space when crunch time stalled all scoring rhythm. “His mind. His mind has always been there,” Mitchell said. “Control. Steadiness. Not really overreacting.”

Those pair of seasons then brought Rubio to Phoenix for the 2019-20 campaign after signing a three-year, $51 million contract in free agency. The Suns had struggled for years to pair Booker with a complementary point guard, and general manager James Jones pinpointed Rubio as the even-keeled connector to boost Phoenix’s attack. By then, Phoenix had drafted two-way wings Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson as well. Add in the No. 1 pick in 2018, Deandre Ayton, and the Suns were missing the straw that stirred their drink. “Right when he came in, he had the type of leadership that goes from top to bottom,” Booker told Yahoo Sports. “Everybody feels his presence. He’s a true competitor, a true winner. That was the type of stability I was looking for in my career.”

They thought the game similarly, a chess match full of decoys and disguises. Booker has his moves from certain positions and, from the school of Kobe Bryant, he has counters and counters to those counters. Rubio was tallying it all, where Booker believes on most possessions, and they were typically one step ahead of their opponents. “It’s fun being in the backcourt with him because he just sharpens you every day with his mind,” Booker said. On defense, Booker felt Rubio was the most effective talker of any point guard he’d heard before.

Those Suns played well enough before the COVID-19 pandemic halted life at large, and Phoenix qualified for the bubble when NBA play resumed. That stint in Orlando proved monumental for the franchise in terms of moving away from a rebuild. Rubio, with a family of lions inked along his right arm, helped lead a roaring Phoenix pack to an 8-0 sprint to close the regular season. “He might come off as a nice guy, but he’s out there trying to kill the other team,” Booker said. “He’s definitely fiery and it’s definitely contagious and it goes all the way through the locker room.”

Rubio assisted the foundation for a contender, but the Suns dealt the veteran to Oklahoma City as part of a package for Chris Paul that offseason, adding a Hall of Fame ingredient to the recipe that first found success with Rubio in place. “He was a big part of us making that Finals run that next year,” Booker told Yahoo Sports. “That bubble was very important for our organization and put us on the right trajectory.”

Four days later, Rubio was re-routed in a three-team trade to Minnesota. Returning to his NBA roots, Rubio was suddenly tasked with guiding Edwards, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. Edwards liked Rubio for another reason, too. “Ricky passed,” the Timberwolves star smiled. But the lessons do remain with Edwards. In training camp, during a scrimmage in which Edwards’ team was trailing by two, the rookie ignored D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns, missed the jumper, then watched his side lose the exhibition. Rubio came over and wrapped his arm around the youngster. “Ricky was like, ‘Yo, young fella. Right now, it’s their time to take that shot,’” Edwards told Yahoo Sports. “He was like, ‘In a year, maybe it’s your time. But right now, it’s their time, so you better get them the ball. That’s what they pay them to do.’” Here, Edwards whistled. “That just stuck with me. I was like, ‘Ricky, I don’t give a f***. I’m gonna take that shot. And he was like, ‘Nah, let them do what they get paid to do.’ And maybe like five, six months later, he told me, ‘All right, it’s your time now.’”

The next summer, Rubio was traded to Cleveland, reuniting him with former Minnesota teammate Kevin Love. The veteran’s spirit was credited by Cavaliers staffers as a key factor in Love’s resurgence into Sixth Man of the Year consideration in 2021-22. The front office dealt a protected first-round pick and Rubio to acquire Caris LeVert at last February’s trade deadline, but only after Rubio suffered a season-ending ACL injury. His presence, though, was missed to the level that Cleveland re-signed Rubio this offseason, and his presence further emboldened the Cavs’ approach to acquire Mitchell come August.

Now it’s up to Cleveland’s tutored backcourt to outduel Jalen Brunson and the Knicks.

“I gotta be the guy to continue to use my voice, but listen as well, and not be too naive to listen to what’s going on. Who really helped me with that is Ricky Rubio,” Mitchell said. “It’s great that he’s here, so I can lean on him, for my mental as well, so he can kind of talk about our past experiences and help steady this group.”

Three-game holes are deep holes to dig out of. Still, Rubio offered a contemplative calm just minutes after that 102-93 defeat Sunday. “Focus on this series for example,” Rubio said. “We lose [Game 4], it doesn’t mean the end of the world. It doesn’t mean you’ll lose the championship, it keeps going until you win or lose four.”

Yahoo Sports senior NBA writer Dan Devine contributed to this report.

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