The following is a review of the 2/12/21 (It aired after midnight on the East coast) episode of Inside the NBA on TNT which followed the Portland Trail Blazers' 118-114 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. It is the first in a series of reviews The Big Lead will publish in the coming months providing feedback on some of the biggest sports shows on television.
When I woke up this morning, Charmed was on my television. I probably don't need to tell you the previous evening was spent watching basketball on TNT. Though I've never watched a single episode of Charmed, it's a show that has been a part of my life for what feels like decades. Always after spending the night with the Inside the NBA crew. While I see clips from Ernie, Kenny, Shaq and Charles regularly, it's been a minute since I took in an entire episode of the best sports studio show in history.
The episode started around 12:46 a.m. on the East Coast. Ernie Johnson was hosting with Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley, and Channing Frye sitting in for Kenny Smith. The show got right into things with a live interview with Carmelo Anthony who had just scored 15 points in the fourth quarter of a Blazers' win over the Sixers. Everyone, including Frye, got in a question.
What stood out in this short interview, aside from Shaq's deadpan delivery asking about being a good shooter, was how much everyone involved seemed to like each other. The guys in the studio were clearly Anthony fans and Melo seemed happy to be there. Postgame interviews can provide the show with its best and worst moments. There was no awkwardness like when Donovan Mitchell appeared a couple weeks ago. While it will inspire fewer headlines, it was much more enjoyable to watch.
After the interview with Melo, they dove into highlights from the night. All highlights were focused on Joel Embiid. If he hadn't played so well (35 points on 13-of-25 shooting with only two three-point attempts) this could have been a disaster. Instead Shaq and Charles seemed pleased with Embiid's BIG MAN performance. The obsession with big men seems to hang over every highlight.
While most shows narrate highlights, the Inside the NBA crew just has a conversation over them. This is really a variety show or a talk show where they use highlights as background noise. Speaking of which, Frye was smart to speak early in the episode because once Barkley and O'Neal got going, he faded. It's no fault of his own, these guys just don't need that fourth voice on set if Kenny Smith isn't there.
One neat trick the show does is use tweets as a bumper. Mostly the tweets make fun of Barkley or Shaq, but this time they went complimentary with Kevin Love showing Channing Frye love and Mychal Thompson saying Inside is the best show on television. On any other show this might be too awkward, but they don't use it as a crutch.
During the first commercial break they (premiered?) showed a trailer for a documentary series about the show itself. What a happy coincidence this happened as I was tuning in to focus on what the show looks like today.
During Stephen Curry highlights they argued about guard MVP candidates, including Lillard and Mitchell. The whole dynamic between the show and Mitchell, who is clearly a very good player, but also a guard, remains weird. Barkley also took the opportunity to proclaim that the Warriors stink. During Pacers-Pistons highlights, Barkely proclaimed Domantas Sabonis one of the top ten players in the league, which was met with the same enthusiasm as the Mitchell MVP case.
During highlights from the Heat-Rockets game that aired on TNT earlier in the evening, Barkley was proud of the fact that he did not know who Max Strus was. This is one of the issues with the show, where younger, lesser players are uniformly dismissed by Barkley and Shaq.
Later in the show they wished Bill Russell a happy birthday. Russell was an important figure for both Barkley and Shaq which led to a short genuine moment that was only briefly interrupted by Shaq pointing out that players today are soft. And the moment was buried by Barkley joking that Shaq shouldn't have been compared to Russell, Wilt or Kareem.
After finishing the highlights for the night they played a clip of Barkley getting a concussion which he had mentioned earlier in the evening. And Barkley did the Silhouette Challenge and revealed he hadn't worn underwear in two decades. The show leans heavily on meme culture from tweets and little things like this.
They finished the show with their regular segments: Shaqtin' a Fool and EJ's Neat-O Stat of the Night. By the end of Shaqtin', Shaq was wiping tears from his eyes, which is really the best way to explain Inside the NBA. These guys enjoy doing this for the most part. They like getting together to complain about it. Which also presents a problem as the show regularly veers towards
After two decades of Charles and Kenny and Ernie and another with Shaq, they are still just a group of friends getting together to shoot the shit without a filter. That's what makes the show so watchable and leads to all the moments that would get talking heads on any other show in hot water. You can plug in a guy like Frye or any other retired (or inactive) player and the other guys just step up. The connecting thread of the show is laughter which pretty much acts as the soundtrack to the entire episode and runs through all of TNT's basketball coverage.
While Inside the NBA actually only runs for about an hour after the Thursday double-header ends, the crew is on the air from the pregame, halftimes, and between the games. Things that are referenced throughout the night help shape the actual episode, like Barkley's concussion. The episode flew by, as things tend to do after midnight. Inside the NBA remains one of the best sports shows on television because of the unencumbered personalities and their familial love. Everyone involved is comfortable speaking his mind and being the butt of a joke and it results in good television.