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On NBA playoff eve, broadcaster Ernie Johnson Weighs in on the NBA season thus far


All right. The NBA playoffs begin tomorrow, and we're already seeing a possible changing of the guard this year. LeBron James and the LA Lakers have a tough task facing the defending champion, the Denver Nuggets. Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors did not even make the playoffs. So who does look good entering these next two months of basketball? Well, let's bring in someone who has sifted through a lot of opinions. Ernie Johnson is host of TNT's "Inside The NBA." Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ERNIE JOHNSON: Ailsa, this is an honor.


JOHNSON: I appreciate you very much.

CHANG: I appreciate you. Thank you. Well, let's start with the Western Conference, where Steph and LeBron and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving play. None of these guys even have a home court advantage in this first round. So who looks good to you in the West right now?

JOHNSON: Well, I think going in, I was in the corner of the Denver Nuggets. They're the defending champions. They've got Nikola Jokic, who will - well, at least he got my vote for most valuable player, and that's where you start. But there are so many good stories going on in the Western Conference, and a lot of those are injury related, like Kawhi Leonard of the Clippers, who hasn't played in a while. Will he be good to go against the Dallas Mavericks, who have Kyrie and Luka Doncic, who's another MVP candidate? And the No. 1 seed there is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have a guy named Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is one of the most dynamic players in the league. So there's a lot to look forward to from our perspective as we get ready to basically...

CHANG: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...Work every night for the next month and a half.

CHANG: (Laughter) Lucky you. Well, that sounds exciting. Let's go over to the Eastern Conference now. The Boston Celtics have the best record in the NBA.


CHANG: The New York Knicks have also made a late-season push. Who do you have advancing out of the East?

JOHNSON: Well, it's going to sound very vanilla for me to say, you know, that Boston and Denver look like my teams to meet in the NBA Finals 'cause, you know, their defending champs and the No. 1 seed in the East in Boston. That being said, the most compelling matchup in the first round in the East, to me, is Philadelphia and New York, the Sixers and the Knicks. Their arenas are only 100 miles apart. Their fan bases are rabid. So this is exactly the kind of first-round matchup you'd like to see. Joel Embiid, who's an all-world player, missed a lot of time this year, but his team hasn't lost since he's come back. And so now they open up at New York on Saturday, and that place will be absolutely bonkers.

CHANG: OK, Ernie, I also just want to ask a little bit about your job because I think people who have seen TNT's coverage of NBA games will understand the very specific challenge you have in...

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

CHANG: ...Corralling your famously talkative co-hosts, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal and Kenny Smith. Like, how do you keep it insightful but fun and still make sure the show stays on track?

JOHNSON: You know, what's great about it, Ailsa, is this - there are certain times you just want to let them go because it's really entertaining, and there are some times you try to cut it off and move on to the next thing...

CHANG: Yeah. We have very similar jobs, Ernie.

JOHNSON: Yeah, exactly. Well, but get a hold of this. You have production meetings before your shows and that kind of thing? Our production meetings do not include Shaq, Kenny and Charles...


JOHNSON: ...Because we do not want them to know what we might have in store during the night. We throw stuff at the guys and get their genuine gut-level reactions. You know, if you're sitting at home wondering what's going to happen next, I'm in the same boat. I don't really know...

CHANG: I love that.

JOHNSON: ...From time to time what's going to happen. And so before it's all over, I'm going to be laughing, and that's a good thing. I don't think we can laugh enough.

CHANG: I love it. All right. I'm going to cut you...

JOHNSON: Yes (laughter).

CHANG: ...Off now, Ernie. Ernie Johnson, host of TNT's "Inside The NBA." Thank you so, so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure, Ailsa. Thank you so much. Hope you have a great weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.