Sunday night, Charles Barkley called the Timberwolves one of the “dumbest” teams he’s ever seen.
This is good news for our Woofies. This means they have escaped his favorite insult.
Sir Charles did not call them “trrbull.”
Trrbull — spelled in some regions of America as “terrible” — is Barkley’s linguistic coup de grace. In criticizing the Wolves, he dumbed down his vocabulary and gave voice to every grumble issued by every disgruntled Wolves fan this season.
So proceeds the strangest season in franchise history — 47 victories, a return to the playoffs after 14 years and widespread discontent.
Barkley, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal comprise the cast of “Inside the NBA” on TNT. It is easily the best sports show on television, largely because Barkley is the rare former athlete who combines former greatness with current fearlessness.
They are blunt. Unlike most former athletes on TV, viewers never sense Barkley, Smith and Shaq are worried they might offend the league, a team, a coach, a player or a sponsor.
“They’ve got to be one of the dumbest teams I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Tell us how you really feel, Chuck… �� pic.twitter.com/PWyXgbJB6v
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 16, 2018
They seem particularly intent on criticizing Thibodeau, perhaps because of his reputation as a scowling sideline screamer.
Sunday night, they criticized the Wolves for not playing at a faster pace and for failing to take advantage of mismatches on offense.
What makes Barkley so entertaining is his willingness to say whatever comes into his mind. That is also why we should be skeptical of his views even as we are entertained.
The Wolves are poor defensively, haven’t gotten enough production out of their bench and become predictable and stagnant in late-game offensive situations. That’s what they should be criticized for. Their offensive efficiency? That’s a team strength.
The Wolves ranked fourth in offensive efficiency this season, trailing only Houston, Golden State and Toronto — the NBA’s three best teams.
The Wolves accomplished this without the benefit of quality three-point shooters, which is remarkable, and with star Jimmy Butler missing 23 games because of knee problems, and while breaking in new point guard Jeff Teague.
Should the Wolves run more? Not if Thibodeau is going to play his starters heavy minutes. The best critique that could be made here is that if the Wolves ran more and used their bench more extensively, they might be more dynamic and better use Karl-Anthony Towns’ remarkable skills. But we don’t know how well that would work out, or whether the Wolves’ already struggling defense could handle playing more possessions and at a faster pace.
Should the Wolves have better taken advantage of matchups on Sunday? Maybe. There’s no control group for this experiment. There were favorable matchups available to the Wolves, but the player who most dramatically underperformed on offense was Towns, who was being double-teamed and, according to Thibodeau, didn’t fight hard enough to establish positions where he could be fed the ball. (That view seems correct.)
Here’s where criticism of the Wolves’ offense should be focused: in the last minutes of close games.
On the Wolves’ last possession Sunday night, they trailed by three and were without timeouts. Butler took the inbounds, dribbled up court and attempted a spinning shot. He meant to take a three-pointer but his foot touched the line, so even if he had made it, he would not have tied the score.
Teague was open at the top of the key, but Butler was determined to take the shot.
In Thibs’ first season in Minnesota, he tried out Andrew Wiggins as a late-game scorer without much success. In Thibs’ second season, he often was happy to use Butler as a closer.
By nature of his personality and role on the team, Butler wants to take charge in last-second situations, but that intent makes him easy to defend.
The Wolves have to do better than a spinning not-quite-three-pointer when they have a chance to beat the Rockets in Houston.
Thibodeau trusts Butler in those situations, and Butler trusts himself, but when the Wolves need a big shot they should run some semblance of their efficient if unpopular half-court offense.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org