By now, everyone on the planet has talked about the final moments of regulation in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. J.R. Smith, the Cavs’ unpredictable shooting guard, has been cursed by every Cavs fan, in every way imaginable– in every nation’s language and dialect.
LeBron James played a phenomenal game, finishing with 51 points, but that’s not THE BIG STORY of the Finals so far. While there were so many other talking points about the game, Smith’s mind-boggling, game-altering blunder stole what could have been James’ perfect night.
With 4.7 seconds to go and the game tied at 104, Cavaliers point guard George Hill missed his second free throw. But instead of the Warriors’ 7-foot Kevin Durant grabbing the miss, lo and behold, there was the 6-foot-5 Smith snagging the rebound. Rather than quickly calling a timeout to set up a play or passing the ball out to a wide open, hot-shooting LeBron, Smith decided to go toward half court and dribble out the clock. Upon James’ insistence, Smith passed the ball to Hill who didn’t have enough time to shoot the ball as time ran out.
As the camera focused on the exasperated LeBron and his dumbfounded teammate, J.R. seemed to say, “I thought we were up.”
The Cavs lost in overtime as the botched opportunity deflated their confidence, eventually losing the game 124-114.
The terrible judgment that Smith displayed on the league’s biggest stage has to be one of the all-time greatest blunders in basketball history. The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman looked at players “who forgot what they were supposed to do in ways that cost their teams games” in a story that wonder where Smith’s boo-boo ranked in history. Thanks to Sherman for the inspiration to the ranking and the links to some of the videos.
Similarly, I’d like us to look at the 10 biggest gaffes in basketball, those that players committed which cost his team a game or, in some cases, ultimately resulted in a series loss because of a split-second error in judgment at the most inopportune times.
10. Steve Kerr
OK, so this didn’t cost them the game, but it almost did. Hey, it’s my list but this, I’m sure you’ll agree is worth being at the number 10 spot.
If there’s anyone on Thursday who can empathize with J.R., it’s none other than Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr. No, he didn’t commit a costly coaching mistake recently, but during his playing days with the Chicago Bulls, Kerr had a lapse in judgment and there was no doubt that he was the culprit.
— NBA (@NBA) December 24, 2017
That’s because he passed the ball… to the opponent.
In 1994, during a Christmas Day game versus the New York Knicks, the Bulls were ahead by three after a free throw by Toni Kukoc. The Knicks’ Anthony Mason threw a touchdown pass that unfortunately fell into the hands of Kerr.
For some reason, he was in no mood to hold onto the ball even though he was making 86 percent of his free throws that season. Kerr accidentally tapped the ball into the hands of Hubert Davis who wasted no time in hoisting up a three. The shot went in at the buzzer.
The game went into overtime where the Bulls were finally able to dismiss the Knicks.
9. J.R. Smith
Nope this isn’t J.R.’s Finals Game 1 blooper.
He should have taken a shot or something last Thursday but four years ago, J.R. should have held onto the ball and wasted time before taking a shot.
With the score tied at 100-all between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, the Knicks Beno Udrih received a pass after a rebound that reset the shot clock. Udrih did what any good point guard would do and found an open Smith at the top of the key. Rather than run out the clock and take a shot later, he decided to shoot it since he was wide open anyway. After all, that’s what good shooting guards do, right?
Smith honestly thought they were behind, which is why he shot the ball.
As Sherman noted, unlike Game 1 of the Finals, J.R. admitted to not knowing the score and apologized for it.
J.R. Smith says he thought the Knicks were down 2 when he took the ill advised three. "That's bad basketball IQ on me," he said.
— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) January 4, 2014
Bone head play! Slander well deserved!
— JR Smith (@TheRealJRSmith) January 4, 2014
How about owning up to not knowing the score again, J.R.? You’ve done it before. It should be easier to do now.
8. Michael Ruffin
In 2007, Washington Wizards forward Michael Ruffin made an unbelievable play that to this day seems improbable.
They were ahead by three versus the Toronto Raptors with 3.8 seconds to go when he caught an errant full court pass. In order to use up the clock, Ruffin threw the ball up in the air hoping that time would expire while it was still there.
Too bad for Ruffin, though, as he didn’t exactly throw the ball as high as he would have hoped. The Raptors’ Morris Peterson caught the ball as it descended and hoisted an unbelievable, Hail Mary shot. Bam! Overtime!
Toronto went on to beat the Wizards and Ruffin will forever be associated with Smith for boneheaded plays at the end of close games.
7. Derek Harper
Similar to Smith’s mistake of not knowing the score, Derek Harper of the Dallas Mavericks had the misfortune of not knowing what the score was, too. He was a rookie then, which made his blunder that much more forgivable than Smith’s but it sure cost them the game, too.
Harper’s infamous slipup happened against Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals way back in 1984. He dribbled out the clock thinking that they were ahead not realizing that the game was tied. He even had the audacity to celebrate after the buzzer sounded. It was only as he was on his way to the bench that he realized what just happened.
The Lakers won in overtime as the Mavericks went down 3-1 and eventually lost the series 4-1.
6. Fred Brown
Next on our list is a couple of college games. Let’s start with one that involves one of the game’s greatest players—Michael Jordan. Jordan was involved but he wasn’t the one who committed the oversight.
It was the 1982 NCAA championship match and Georgetown’s Fred Brown watched helplessly as Jordan sank the famous game-winning shot for North Carolina with 15 seconds to go. But the game didn’t end there.
Brown ran quickly to set up the play for his team, but the pressure may have led him to lose focus. As he was looking for the open man, he saw one to his right and quickly whipped a pass in that direction. But Brown accidentally passed the ball to UNC’s James Worthy who gratefully received the ball from his opponent as he gleefully wilted the clock down.
The Tar Heels won the championship on Jordan’s clutch shot but Brown gave them a bit of help toward the end.
5. Chris Webber
Another college basketball mishap occurred more than a decade later. In the 1993 NCAA championship match-up between Michigan State and UNC (what is it with the Tar Heels that causes opponents to lose focus?), Chris Webber committed the ill-reputed timeout that has haunted him throughout his career.
As a member of the cult-favorite freshman class of the Wolverines known as the Fab Five, Webber was considered the best player on the team. But during the waning moments of the game, he didn’t realize that his team no longer had a timeout so he called one when he was trapped by the Carolina defense. The team was down two points and they needed to make a quick basket either to tie the game or make a three to win it.
But as fate would have it, Michigan had no more timeouts resulting in a technical foul which meant two free throws and ball possession for North Carolina.
As you can see from the video documentary above, Webber took the error very hard. He knew that he was the reason why their team wouldn’t experience a championship that year. UNC protected their lead and won another national championship at the expense of Webber and the Wolverines.
4. Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas is one of the NBA’s greatest players and considered by many as the greatest little man in the history of the game. No matter how good he was, the 6-foot-1 Thomas wasn’t immune from the mishaps that ordinary players are prone to commit.
The Detroit Pistons were moments away from winning Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics at the fabled Boston Garden.
With five seconds remaining, the Pistons ahead 107-106 and the ball in their possession, the game was practically in the bag. Thomas inbounded the ball to teammate Bill Laimbeer not realizing that Larry Bird was streaking in that direction as well.
Bird stole the ball, then had the presence of mind to pass the ball to a cutting Dennis Johnson who made a layup, giving the Celtics the lead with only a second left. The Celtics not only won the game, they also won the series in seven games thanks to the gift from Thomas that Bird received.
3. Josh Howard
Now we get to the players that botched plays during crucial moments in the Finals.
The 2006 NBA Finals featured the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat, two franchises that were seeking to win their first championship.
Game 5 of the series went down the wire with the winner taking a 3-2 series lead.
After the Heat’s Dwyane Wade went to the line to take two free throws with 1.9 seconds remaining, Dallas was ahead by one point when Wade took the first free throw and nailed it. Josh Howard saw his coach, Avery Johnson, signaling a timeout which he meant was for them to call a timeout after the second free throw.
Instead, Howard called timeout immediately to the dismay of Johnson and the rest of the team. The game was now tied at 100 but if Wade makes the second free throw, the Mavs would be down by one and wouldn’t be able to call another timeout to advance the ball.
After a bit of a discussion between the referees, they awarded the timeout to the Mavericks, costing them the game and, eventually, the series as the Heat wrapped it up the next game. Wade made the second free throw and the rest is history.
2. Magic Johnson
If you’re wondering where the infamous nickname Tragic Johnson started, it’s from the seven-game series between the Lakers and Celtics at the 1984 NBA Finals.
The game was tied at 113 with only 13 seconds to go and the ball in the hands of the 1980 Finals MVP. Magic dribbled way too long, even with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asking for the ball.
By the time he passed the ball to a teammate, it was too late. The Lakers lost in overtime. What’s worse for Johnson is that he suffered many late-game mental lapses that cost them dearly throughout the series and the Celtics won the title in the end. It was one of the most inexplicable performances from one of the league’s best.
Though you would think that Magic was clutch after winning five championships in the eighties, this is one series that he would rather forget. He would get his revenge a year later when the Lakers won the championship over these same Celtics.
1. J.R. Smith
While it is true that I may be ranking J.R.’s blunder way too high because it’s the most recent, it’s hard to explain how someone cannot know the score in the waning moments of a tight contest with a championship at stake. No matter what he says, there’s no doubt that he didn’t know that the game was actually tied and they weren’t ahead.
His actions and his words during that pressure-packed moment suggested that he was thinking they were up by one.
Smith dribbled away after the missed free throw from George Hill, as if to avoid being fouled by the Warriors. If he really knew the score, he would have called a timeout moments after he grabbed the rebound. Or, he could have passed the ball to James for the game-winning shot. Instead, he looked very much perplexed as any player would be for not knowing the situation exactly.
But that’s not what he told reporters per ESPN.
“It was a tie ballgame and we had a timeout,” Smith said. “I tried to get enough space because, obviously, KD [Kevin Durant] was standing right there. I tried to get enough space to bring it out to maybe get a shot off. And then I looked over at Bron [LeBron James], and he looked like he was trying to call a timeout. So I stopped. And then the game was over.”
Coach Tyronn Lue told the media that Smith thought they were ahead negating any statement later on from Smith that he knew the score was tied.
It’s number one in our rankings because of how huge it would have been for the Cavs to come out with a win at the Oracle Arena, one of the loudest crowds in the league. Not only that, the Cavs are underdogs of historic proportions to the Warriors who boast four potential Hall of Famers. To top it off, James was having one of the best games in Finals history and to see the opportunity to win the game taken away from him by his own teammate truly deserves a ranking this high.
It remains to be seen whether the Cavs can recover from such a disappointment and if Smith’s psyche was affected in any way by his Game 1 indiscretion.