Former NBA player Kenny Smith, analyst for TBS and TNT's Inside the NBA studio show, is in a control room watching Game 4 of the Bucks-Pacers Eastern Conference quarterfinals series. "I don't question a player's heart, his effort or his character," says Smith, as he watches Indiana's Dale Davis brick a foul shot, "but Dale Davis can't shoot free throws! That's a fact."
Smith and studio host Ernie (EJ) Johnson, much like the Jazz's Karl Malone and John Stockton, have become stalwart postseason perennials. Now in his 10th season of hosting TBS's and TNT's NBA broadcasts, Johnson is the ideal studio assist man, seamless and steady, never grating. Smith, a former point guard, has evolved into the primary shooter on Inside the NBA's spacious Starship Enterprise-like set, which was unveiled at the start of the playoffs. Like Stockton and Malone, Johnson and Smith are much admired and yet a tad despised. Sometimes, you see, Inside the NBA is too inside the NBA for some players' tastes.
"We gotta win tonight," Kevin Garnett told his fellow Timberwolves before Game 4 of Minnesota's opening-round series with Portland. "We don't want to be home watching EJ and Kenny cracking jokes on us."
Inside the NBA may be the Tim Hard-away of studio shows: taking dead aim at its target, talking a little smack and yet never taking itself too seriously. When Garnett's comment aired within minutes of his uttering it, for example, producer Tim Kiely, eager to have Garnett appear as a studio guest, said, " Minnesota can't lose fast enough for us." The Timberwolves, who trailed in the series two games to one, obliged Kiely that night by ending their stay in the playoffs.
In terms of postseason TV coverage, the NBA's is similar to a parental custody agreement. NBC, with more financial wherewithal but less available time, gets the kids on weekends. Turner Spoils, which can offer the children more quality time, has them during the week. Consequently, Inside the NBA is less likely to spare the rod. Fans—and players too, much as they hate to admit it—tune in for the candor.
"The toughest part of doing this show every night is being away from my own kids," says Johnson, a father of four who almost never arrives home before 2 a.m. during the six-week playoff stretch. In fact, stealing a page from Utah guard Jeff Hornacek's playbook, Johnson signals Hello to his brood each night by pulling on the left cuff of his blazer at the beginning of the broadcast. "They say, 'O.K., Dad got to work safely, now can we watch Fresh Prince?' "