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Rubio knows big expectations await his return

Rubio knows big expectations await his return

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Wait `till Ricky comes back.

It seems like that's been the hopeful mantra for the Minnesota Timberwolves all season long.

Guards getting torched by opposing backcourts? Wait `till Ricky comes back.

Nikola Pekovic not getting the same clean looks in the paint he did last year? Wait `till Ricky comes back.

Attendance a little on the sluggish side early on? Wait `till Ricky comes back.

Ricky Rubio knows that there are a lot of expectations being put on his return to the Timberwolves. He knows he is being cast as the magic sand that will fill in every crack and mask any blemish in the team's promising, if flawed, foundation as soon as he hits the court. It's nothing new for basketball prodigy who has been carrying the weight of expectations since he was a teenager in Spain.

``I don't know why, but the pressure has been following me since I turned pro,'' Rubio told The Associated Press on Friday. ``I was 14 and I was they said I was unimpressive. `He's too young to play. He's not going to do well.' And I did well back in Spain.

``The pressure followed me when I came here and they said, `Oh Ricky's coming after two years, he's going to bring everything to this team.' It's just hard, but it's something that I'm used to. I like the pressure, I like the challenge. The more difficult the challenge, the better it is for me.''

What makes this hurdle different than any other he's had to leap before it is that Rubio is recovering from his first significant injury. It's been almost nine months since he tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee late in a game against the Lakers, ending a terrific rookie season and sucking the life right out of a young Timberwolves team that he helped return to relevance in the Western Conference.

Rubio was scratched from the Wolves' game against Cleveland on Friday night, but his season debut appears to be imminent. Minnesota has four days off after the game against the Cavs before a home game against Denver on Wednesday. Neither the team, nor Rubio has set a date for his return, but it's clear he's starting to get a little antsy.

``I want to play like a month ago, but they don't let me,'' Rubio said with a smile, probably only half-joking. ``Now it's kind of a thing when my knee feels ready, it's going to be the time. But I don't know. I need a couple more practices to see how I am. Actually, I don't know if I'm going to be ready next week or three weeks. It depends how I feel and how my knee responds.''

To put it simply, Rubio is too important to the franchise's future for the Wolves coaches and medical staff to go out on too shaky a limb by bringing him back a game or two early. Along with All-Star Kevin Love, he is the glue that holds everything together, the headliner on the marquee, the apple of a swooning fan base's eye.

``I don't think I'm the key or I'm going to change the team,'' he said. ``But I'm going to help it.''

Still, Rubio and the team are trying to temper the out-sized eagerness surrounding his return. He hasn't played in a game in nine months. It's going to take time for him to get his timing and conditioning back up to speed. So that beautiful game that he plays might not be so pretty at first.

``I've been out like eight, nine months,'' he said. ``I'm not giving excuses. It's how it is. If you're out for eight months or nine, the first game you're not going to play like you used to. It's going to take time, one, two, three months, who knows? I have to get used to the rhythm again and get used to playing again.''

After all, not everyone is Adrian Peterson. Just across town, the Minnesota Vikings running back has defied all the odds in his own comeback from a torn ACL. He leads the NFL in rushing and appears to be playing better than he ever has, less than a year removed from his injury.

``That's crazy. Nobody can do that,'' Rubio said. ``He did it and he came back even better than he was. I'm watching some games and I'm not a big fan of football but because he had the same injury and he's playing for the Vikings, I follow him. It's real impressive performance, what he's doing. I wish I could be as good as he does after that injury.''

Love knows how his friend is feeling. The power forward missed most of the first month of the season with a broken right hand, and he heard everyone saying how things would be so much better as soon as he was in the lineup. But the Wolves lost four of Love's first five games and clearly struggled initially to incorporate him back into the mix.

``For me, obviously I want to be cautiously optimistic from that standpoint because I know a lot of pressure was put on me, not knowing how my hand was going to respond,'' Love said. ``I know I haven't been the 25 (points) and 10 (rebounds) guy that I usually am. ... I haven't been quite putting up the numbers and helping the team as much as I can, but we do have an 8-9 record.

``For Ricky, I've said all along that I know he's going to return probably sometime in December. But as far as putting that type of pressure on him, I think our organization and our coaching staff and the guys, the players, have done a good job of doing that.''

Rubio knows one of his trademark no-look bounce passes may miss the target in the early going. The alley oops may be a little harder to come by, and his timing on the pick-and-roll may not be as sharp. But as long as he's healthy, he's OK with that. And that's why even with his first game apparently so close, he has to be sure he's completely ready.

``If I come back earlier than I'm supposed to, it's bad for my knee and bad for the team too because I'm not going to give my 100 percent,'' he said. ``And if I get hurt again, it's not going to help the team. And if I play and I'm not playing good, it's not going to help the team. I want to play so bad, but I want to be focused and I want to be ready to play when I'm ready.''

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Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter:http://twitter.com/APkrawczynski

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Orioles agree to one-year deal with pitcher Chris Tillman, according to reports

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Orioles agree to one-year deal with pitcher Chris Tillman, according to reports

SARASOTA, Fla. -- A person familiar with the negotiations says pitcher Chris Tillman and the Baltimore Orioles have agreed to a $3 million, one-year contract.

The deal includes performance bonuses, the person told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Monday because the deal had not yet been announced.

Tillman was 1-7 with a 7.84 ERA in 19 starts and five relief appearances last year. He would be the second starter added by the Orioles in the past week after right-hander Andrew Cashner.

Tillman likely would join right-handers Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman and Cashner in the rotation.

The 29-year-old right-hander lives in Sarasota and had been working out at the Orioles' facility before spring training. Manager Buck Showalter watched Tillman throw and was impressed.

Tillman began last season on the disabled list with right shoulder stiffness.

"Better than he did last year at this time. I think he's got the chance to pitch well for somebody this year," Showalter said. "A lot of the challenges he had last year -- this time last year -- aren't there. Somebody's going to reap the benefits."

Tillman's is 73-55 with a 4.43 ERA in nine major league seasons, all with the Orioles. He won 16 games in both 2013 and 2016.

"He's a guy when he's healthy you can bank on him giving you 200 innings and keeping his ERA between a 3 and a 4," Gausman said. "That in the AL East is always going to be very valuable."

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Biggest storylines for Wizards coming out of the All-Star break center around John Wall

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Biggest storylines for Wizards coming out of the All-Star break center around John Wall

The Wizards experienced a wild ride before the All-Star break, but came out of it on solid ground, fourth in the Eastern Conference with a 33-24 record. With 27 games still remaining until the postseason, here is a look at the biggest storylines moving forward...

Who will they sign?

The Wizards are close to signing a new player as they were left with open roster spots following the trade deadline when they dealt guard Sheldon Mac to Atlanta for a second round pick. The Wizards have keyed in on the backup point guard position and are likely to go in that direction with the move. But they could still be in the market for other players, possibly someone at the backup wing position, even if they sign a point guard.

The Wizards only have a few days left to make a move because they need to get their roster to 14 players within 14 days of the Mac trade on Feb. 8. Their next game is on Thursday against the Cavaliers, so they could have someone in the building in time to play in that game.

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When will Wall return?

Wall had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Jan. 31 and was prescribed a recovery timeline of six-to-eight weeks, meaning he still has about another three weeks to go before a return is possible. It could be another five weeks before he's back on the court. That puts him in the range of missing another 10-to-17 games.

The Wizards have played nine games since he went down and have won seven of them, but they aren't even halfway there yet. They have a long way to go. Because it's Wall and his return will have a domino effect, this is the most important storyline to watch for the Wizards moving forward.

How will Wall fit back in?

Wall's return will of course be a big deal for the Wizards. They will be adding an All-Star back into their lineup with just weeks before the start of the playoffs. But at the moment, they have a good thing going and are playing much better than they were in the last week or two before he was shut down. That, of course, had a lot to do with Wall playing injured.

It will be interesting if the Wizards are still winning at anything close to their current rate when Wall comes back. That would be the ideal scenario because they could ease him back into the lineup and take their time getting him up to speed. But it will also create a complex situation for head coach Scott Brooks, who will need to make adjustments to his rotation. The alternative would be if the Wizards aren't playing well when Wall returns and the concern there would be the urge to rush him back in any capacity.

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Tough schedule

The Wizards have fared quite well for themselves so far with a 33-24 record despite injuries to Wall, Markieff Morris and Otto Porter to varying degrees. But they have done so while enjoying the easiest schedule in the NBA, 30th out of 30 teams. It is about to get a lot tougher coming out of the All-Star break.

All in the next five weeks the Wizards will see the Cavs, Bucks, Warriors, Raptors, Pacers (twice), Timberwolves, Celtics, Spurs (twice) and the Nuggets. Of their next 17 games, 15 will be against teams currently in the playoff picture. They could be without Wall for all of them. That won't be easy.

Can Oubre get back on track?

While Wall has been out, just about everyone on the Wizards has stepped their games up to compensate. Though he still impacts games in other ways, Kelly Oubre, Jr. has been one exception on offense. In his last 11 games, Oubre has averaged 9.4 points and shot just 31.2 percent from the field and 23.2 percent from three. In his previous 46 games, he averaged 12.4 points while shooting 44.9 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from three.

That is a major difference and the Wizards certainly want to get the early-season version of Oubre back. At his best he is one of their most consistent scorers and an excellent three-point shooter. When he's contributing on both ends of the floor, the Wizards are tough to beat.

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