TNT broadcasters Kenny Smith, left, and Charles Barkley

Brett Davis/USA Today Sports

Bernstein: The Best Part Of NBA Playoffs

Charles Barkley and the TNT crew have the perfect secret sauce.

Dan Bernstein
May 09, 2019 - 2:31 pm

(670 The Score) Upstaging any of the megastars currently populating the NBA is no easy task, especially not as future Hall of Famers fight on in games that matter more as these series extend. It's grand drama most nights, now, featuring a level of speed, shotmaking and overall athletic skill the likes of which we haven't seen.

But still amid all of it, the best part is four old guys sitting at a desk.

"Inside the NBA," TNT's studio show before, during and after games, isn't only the best of its kind at this moment and probably ever, it's some of the most entertaining television available anywhere: now the perfect mix of information, opinion and high and low comedy, striking an ideal balance of content and personality while remaining entirely unpredictable and adaptable to the moment. Count me as disappointed to find the games anywhere else these days.

That's really nothing against ESPN's crew, which is ... fine. They're upbeat and convivial and all the requisite info is there, everything set to a backing track of smoothly edited music that's just audible enough without being distracting. It's lit up and decorated just right, the graphics are state of the art and they know their stuff. But it lacks the secret sauce of its TNT counterpart.

Which -- let's face it -- is mostly Charles Barkley. We don't have to overthink this. He's both wonderfully comfortable in his own skin and completely fearless as a broadcaster, to the point that we forget there's a camera on him. More correctly perhaps, it's that he seems to not know or care that he's on live national television, and we feel almost like eavesdroppers on good friends around the TV in the family room.

But every piece in this works. Even the odd fit that was and is Shaquille O'Neal, who best serves to be goaded and teased by the others. I don't know the extent to which he's Shaqtin' his role as the Margaret Dumont to the others' Marx Brothers, but whatever he's doing is just right. Kenny Smith knows exactly how to counterbalance some of Barkley's outrageousness while never thinking twice about joining the fray of a basketball argument or doing his part in a bit.

Ernie Johnson is terribly underappreciated as a facilitator too, evolving into a tour guide of sorts who takes us on this ride. He connects to the viewer because he actually looks into the camera considerably more often than the other three as they kibitz among themselves, and we always get the sense that he's watching just what we are. Johnson is like the stage manager from Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," both inside the action and beyond it, able to address his cohorts and us nimbly and simultaneously amid the metatheater.

And there's that larger sense that everyone in the room -- including the many we can't see -- is similarly waiting for whatever comes next, as the occasional laughs ring out from somewhere behind the camera. The producers aren't afraid to break convention by showing us the wires every so often either, giving the show a confident self-awareness and loose-around-the edges sensibility, reminiscent of David Letterman's pioneering morning show that set the tone for Late Night and beyond. Chicagoans remember the similar willingness of WGN's "Ray Rayner and His Friends" to demystify television by letting the viewer in on how it's all made, a kind of tacit admission that it's not really all that important.

And that juxtaposes with the truth that the NBA has never actually been bigger or more significant, nor has it ever had the number of high-wattage players both seeking a title now and potentially on the move to other cities in ways that could shift the league tectonically. There's an interconnectedness to the action that affects even teams waiting to know their lottery slots, as players are far from shy about dropping hints about their respective individual futures, and this show doesn't shy from discussing such topics right up front.

Most importantly, the Inside the NBA on TNT is real in a way that so much televised sports talk isn't. The principals are allowed to agree often, instead of being forced into awkward and insincerely opposed positions, and they don't operate at that forced energy level so many seem to demand, yelling at us for no good reason.

While the ongoing basketball action is as compelling as ever, it turns out that this particular greek chorus around it is special in its own right, having become something unique in an endless landscape of the banal.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in middays. You can follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.​​​​