Previewing the NBA Season’s Second Half With TNT’s Kenny Smith

The former NBA player and basketball analyst is chatting it up after taking over the Corona Hotline

March 12, 2021 7:30 am
Kenny Smith on TNT at tip-off of the 2015 NBA All-Star game.
Kenny Smith on TNT at tip-off of the 2015 NBA All-Star game.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for American Express

A sharp-shooting point guard during his 11 years in the NBA, Kenny “The Jet” Smith now holds court alongside Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Ernie Johnson on Inside the NBA, quite possibly the finest sports-talk program in all the land.

A back-to-back NBA champion with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and ’95, the 56-year-old Queens native is getting ready for the second half of an NBA season that has been like no other while he prepares for a new role: in addition to his weekly duties at TNT, Smith has recently taken over the Corona Hotline from former NFL player Tony Romo and will be dishing out advice at 1-844-9-CORONA the same way he used to hand out dimes on the court until April 6.

“I want Charles to call,” Smith tells InsideHook. “Chuck needs advice every night. I sit next to him and he doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about. I argue with him more than anyone else. Oh, I hope Chuck calls.”

 Though it wasn’t via the hotline, we caught up with Smith this week to talk about what’s been happening in the NBA this season and what he expects to see on the court in the coming months.

InsideHook: Is there a team that has carried their momentum from last season to this season?

Smith: I would say Utah. They had a tough out last year when they lost to Denver, but they played extremely well. Donovan Mitchell kind of exploded in the bubble as a third-year player. He’s continued that and they’ve continued that from the bubble more than any other team, The Lakers are still the Lakers. They’ve been playing well despite the injuries. But to me, Utah has probably been the team that’s continued what they did in the bubble, I would say Phoenix is also part of that. They’re starting to get back to form again.

Who do you think has been the MVP of the league so far this season?

Joel Embiid has had a phenomenal year. He’s had a year that’s memorable. He’s definitely deserving of the award at the midpoint. I would say he’s a favorite. He and Joker [Nikola Jokić] are the two guys. You’ve got two centers that are favored to win the award for the first time probably since Shaq.

Is there a team you think is poised for a good second half and a strong finish?

Denver is a team I’d be a little wary of because Jamal Murray is starting to play like he did in the fall. For me, he’s a guy who kind of transcended last year. He didn’t really start out with the same intensity, but now he’s starting to have those games. Denver also has Will the Thrill [Barton] back. He wasn’t in the bubble. Having him, that’s a team that could be really dangerous in the second half of the season.

How has adding Doc Rivers as coach helped the Philadelphia 76ers?

They had a lot of talent, but I think they struggled last season because their roles weren’t defined clearly. Their roles are defined clearly now. Those guys have a better understanding of what they need to do individually to be part of the team. I thought last year they played disjointed.

Are the Nets and all of their stars going to be able to keep improving in Brooklyn?

They’re obviously one of the favorites, but they haven’t played in any high-intensity situations yet. When they’re down six with 43 seconds left, who gets the ball? Who’s defending the other team’s top guy? What’s the best defense? Those are the things that they haven’t learned yet in those high-intensity environments. Not just being up. They know how to do that.

How do you see the fourth-place Boston Celtics finishing the season?

Kemba Walker really hasn’t been helping, but now he’s starting to get healthy. So, they have a good chance. That’s one of the teams I’d watch in the second half of the season, with [Jayson] Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown and Kemba. Because Kemba hasn’t played like Kemba yet. If he starts to come around from the injury he had over the summer, I think that would be an unbelievable team. A young team where people would say, “Man, they’re back.”

If I called to ask for advice about who to bet to win it all, who would you tell me?

I’d be like, “Do-do-do, the number you have reached is no longer in service.” In the NBA, I’m always rooting for the Rockets. But I don’t think they’ll be back climbing into the playoffs.

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