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Did J.R. Smith Make the Costliest Mistake in Basketball History?

The Cavs guard’s Game 1 flub wasn’t the first time a player has sabotaged his own team in a pivotal moment

Chris Webber and J.R. Smith Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

An NBA fable: LeBron James needed to cross a river to win an NBA championship, and as he got to the bank, J.R. Smith approached him.

“LeBron, listen,” J.R. said. “I just sent a DM to a girl on the other side of this river. Can you carry me across?”

LeBron was skeptical. “Why should I trust you? Getting across this river is serious business, and you’re the dude who got suspended for throwing soup at a coach and got fined for tweeting a butt and for repeatedly trying to untie opponents’ shoelaces. I’m worried you’ll sting me too. And besides, I’m already carrying 13 other Cavaliers on my back—why should I add you?”

“Thanks,” J.R. said, latching onto LeBron as he dove into the river. And in the closing seconds of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Smith did something horrendously stupid that would drown the whole team:

What a microcosm of James’s Cleveland tenure. The greatest basketball player alive played one of his greatest games Thursday night, scoring 49 points in regulation, giving his team a chance to score a game-winning bucket. That performance was squandered by his teammates, one of whom literally seized the ball and ran away from the hoop instead of trying to score.

As Thursday night turned into Friday morning, the world tried to figure out exactly what J.R. Smith was thinking. The general consensus is that Smith thought the Cavs were ahead by one after George Hill’s first free throw, and he was trying to run out the clock. Smith, for his part, says he knew the score was tied and was trying to put the team in a position where they could call timeout. His logic fails for two reasons: One, Smith could have called a timeout anywhere and opted not to do so for the entirety of the play. Two, there is footage of Smith appearing to tell James he thought the Cavs were ahead, because unfortunately for J.R., these basketball games are filmed with cameras. Coach Tyronn Lue plainly said Smith thought the Cavs were ahead; James opted to end his media session when repeatedly asked by a reporter if he knew what Smith was thinking.

We will probably never get a clean insight into the mind of J.R. Smith, which is probably for the best—who knows what’s floating around in there? But we can put his error into perspective: Did J.R. Smith just make the most critical mental mistake in basketball history? Here is a look at some other players who forgot what they were supposed to do in ways that cost their teams games.

Derek Harper

Smith is not the first player to sabotage his team in the playoffs by forgetting the score. In Game 4 of the 1984 Western Conference semifinals between the Mavericks and Lakers, Harper—then a rookie for Dallas, but already very much looking like the middle-aged man who would run point for the Knicks in the 1990s—gleefully dribbled out the final seconds of a tied game:

Giving Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar extra time to win the game was a bad idea. The Mavs lost 122-115, and instead of tying the series at 2, they went on to lose 4-1.

Harper held the ball for seven seconds, about twice as long as Smith, and never realized what he was doing was wrong; in fact, he jumped for joy after the buzzer expired, still believing that his team had won. Mavs fans eventually forgave Harper, though. The team retired his number earlier this season.

Josh Howard

Man, the Mavs have made some mistakes.

During a pair of Dwyane Wade free throws in Game 5 of the 2006 NBA Finals, Howard looked to the bench and saw his coach, Avery Johnson, instructing the team to call a timeout. Howard should have understood what Johnson meant: After Wade’s free throws, call a timeout. Instead, Howard—who, in college, cost his Wake Forest team a game by calling a timeout it didn’t have—calmly turned to the officials and called the timeout immediately:

The referees debated the situation for a while and decided to give Howard the timeout he called for. As they later explained to the press, Howard had called for the timeout not once, but twice. If Howard had waited until after the free throws, the Mavs would have been able to advance the ball past half court. Instead, he burnt their final TO in between Wade’s shots, forcing them to play the whole court.

Perhaps he was hoping to ice Wade like an NFL kicker, but it didn’t work: Wade drilled the free throw, giving Miami a one-point lead. Trapped on the wrong end of the floor, the Mavs scrambled for a Devin Harris 50-footer.

Dallas lost, one of three games in the series it dropped by three points or fewer. But at least Howard was trying to follow instructions, while Smith was doing whatever Smith felt like.

Steve Kerr

The coach of the Warriors seems wise now that he’s in charge of one of the best basketball teams of all time, but he messed up in his time, too. With the Knicks trailing by three with only seconds remaining in a Christmas Day game against the Bulls, Anthony Mason wildly hurled the ball as far as he could in hopes a Knick would get under it and hit a 3. There were no Knicks, just Kerr. Kerr could have caught the ball, or simply let it go out of bounds. Instead, he lightly tapped the ball directly to Hubert Davis of the Knicks, who happily drained a 3.

It looks like the famous Valparaiso play for Bryce Drew in the NCAA tournament, except with a player on the wrong team helping the buzzer-beater happen. The Bulls won the game (and virtually every other meaningful game against the Knicks for a decade), so Kerr can be forgiven.

Michael Ruffin

This is, hands down, my favorite play in NBA history. We can’t accuse Ruffin of not knowing the game situation: He caught a Raptors desperation pass with about three seconds left, and, understanding that his Wizards had a three-point lead with three seconds remaining, hurled the ball into the air. He just overestimated his ability to throw a basketball really high. Instead of flying into the rafters until the clock expired, Ruffin’s jubilant hurl fell to the court with enough time for Morris Peterson to catch it and drill a 3.

Of course, the Raptors won in overtime. The stakes were significantly lower here than they were for Smith, since this was just a random regular-season contest in 2007, but I firmly believe that the Raptors should have been awarded the NBA championship after this game.

DeAndre Jordan

Perhaps the best part of Smith’s blunder was not the play itself, but the instameme born from LeBron furiously gesturing to Smith that he should have done something—shoot, call a timeout, ANYTHING. It is surpassed in its disdain and frustration by only Chris Paul’s jumping, pointing, and screaming fit when Jordan opted to stand motionless with the ball in his hands directly under the basket with under a second remaining in a 2015 game:

Jordan’s mistake was somewhat understandable: At the start of the possession, the Clippers had the ball with 2.8 seconds remaining in the game and 1.7 on the shot clock. After the shot-clock buzzer rang, Jordan assumed the game was over. But directly after a timeout, he probably should have known he was working with two clocks.

Again, this was just a regular-season game. But it’s probably the moment Paul realized even he couldn’t make the Clippers anything but the Clippers.

Fred Brown

The first great moment of Michael Jordan’s career might have been forgotten if not for Brown. After Jordan hit a 17-footer to give North Carolina a one-point lead over Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA championship game, Brown brought the ball upcourt and faked a pass to a cutting Sleepy Floyd that caused UNC’s James Worthy to practically jump out of his shoes. Realizing he had a five-on-four advantage, Brown began looking for the next best pass, saw a player out of the corner of his eye, and threw the ball. But he was passing to Worthy, not a teammate, and the Tar Heels won the championship.

If LeBron is really better than MJ, how come LeBron can’t even teach his own teammates the score while MJ could convince opponents his teammates were on their team? Look, I’m sorry, but as a professional sports person I’m legally obligated to compare Michael Jordan and LeBron James once per post.

Every Single Player on the Hornets

Kobe Bryant studied everything MJ did and sometimes even took cues from Jordan’s teammates. Like when Kobe’s Lakers took a page from Tune Squad members Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and pulled the NBA version of the “rabbit season/duck season” argument on the New Orleans Hornets:

The Lakers set up an out-of-bounds play as if they were attacking their own basket, and the Hornets dutifully set up to defend that side of the court. Kobe ran the other way and got an uncontested dunk on the hoop the Lakers had been using all half. There is more stupidity in this play than Smith’s, since it required a whole team’s poor judgment, but Smith still holds the individual lead.

Chris Webber

When we mention “costly mental errors late in basketball games,” one always comes to mind: Chris Webber’s infamous timeout that cost Michigan a chance to win the 1993 national championship game:

As Webber’s teammates asserted, the team had been repeatedly warned that it had no timeouts left. ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on the Fab Five raised the prospect that perhaps somebody on the Michigan bench had yelled “timeout” as Webber advanced the ball, but regardless, Webber should have known. North Carolina won—man, North Carolina really figures out how to convince opponents to do stupid things in national championship games—and Webber hasn’t talked much about the play since.

But I’ll go ahead and argue that Webber’s famous mistake wasn’t as foolish as Smith’s. For one, timeouts are distinctly harder to keep track of than the score. And secondly, the situation was already bleak for Michigan; the Wolverines were down two hoping for a chance to go ahead. Webber didn’t cost his team a win, but the chance to maybe get a win.

… J.R. Smith? Again?

In last season’s playoffs, Smith had the ball with the Cavaliers up three and the shot clock off in a series-closing game against the Pacers. He could have simply held the ball and sealed a Cavs win. Instead, he tried to push a fast break by throwing a behind-the-back pass that would have flown out of bounds had it not smacked into Paul George’s back.

George got a last-second chance to tie the game, but he missed, saving Smith from his gaffe.

………. J.R. Smith???? Again?!?!???!?!?!?!

Thursday night, Smith held the ball when he should have tried scoring. Last season, he tried to rack up NBA Street Gamebreaker points when he should have done nothing. But four seasons ago, he shot when he should have held the ball.

Smith’s Knicks got an offensive rebound in a tied game against the Rockets and could have held for the final shot. But Smith, believing his team to be trailing, instantly hoisted a 3-pointer that missed:

That time, at least, Smith admitted that he did not know the score.

Oddly, Knicks coach Mike Woodson shifted some of the blame for Smith’s shot to Beno Udrih for passing the ball to Smith, because what else was Smith going to do besides shoot if he was open?

To me, Smith’s Game 1 screwup against the Warriors easily takes the title of biggest basketball blunder ever. There have been equally dumb plays, but none so dumb with the stakes so high. Again: Smith ruined an all-time Finals performance by sprinting away from the basket with the basketball. The opportunity was there, and aside from handing the ball to an opponent or spiking the ball at LeBron’s crotch, Smith wasted that opportunity as efficiently as possible.

The play’s aura is boosted by the fact that this is J.R. Smith, the NBA’s resident bad decision-maker. These plays are outliers for guys like Webber and Harper and Kerr. But not for Smith, whose legacy is one of foolishness.

Smith is, honestly, a quality basketball player. His shooting ability helped the Cavs win the 2016 championship, and even in these playoffs he got blisteringly hot against the Raptors to help Cleveland pull off a sweep. In situations when he doesn’t need to know the score or time, he can be great. But his track record in situations that require context is so poor that maybe he just shouldn’t be in games when they’re close late. As Woodson implied: If you give J.R. Smith the ball, what he does is partially your fault.

As LeBron drowned, he turned to J.R.: “Why did you sting me? Now we’ll both die!” But alas: Instead of responding, Smith’s head was buried deep in his phone, DMing randos on Instagram. LeBron realized there was nothing Smith could have done. It was simply in his nature to make the poor choice he made.