With four seconds left and the score tied in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, J.R. Smith had the ball a few feet from the basket and only an off-balance Kevin Durant in front of him. When regulation ended, he somehow had the ball near halfcourt and a mortified LeBron James pointing him to the basket.
What transpired in between will go down in basketball lore as one of the most boneheaded plays in history. Even though Smith denied it after the game, Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue told reporters that the veteran mistakenly thought his team was up by one point. Instead of trying to score a game-winner, Smith nearly dribbled the clock out in a tie game.
There have been plenty of boneheaded plays throughout sports history, it’s a law of nature. But the context of Smith’s error combined with the player’s reputation and the tragedy of wasting James’ 51-point masterpiece make this a truly special point in history. Here are the most comparable plays we could dig up.
Honorable mention: Steve Bartman beats out Moises Alou
It’s hard to compare this to any of these other plays since Bartman is a fan and not a player, but this list really wouldn’t be complete without mentioning one of the most infamous moments in baseball history.
The Cubs were four outs away from the World Series in the 2003 NLCS, when a foul ball was hit toward the left field stands in foul territory. Left-fielder Moises Alou ran and jumped to catch the ball, but Bartman pulled it in and cost his team a key out. The Cubs would crumble from there and miss a chance at ending the Curse of the Billy Goat (which would fall in 2016), but Bartman faced the far bigger price, needing police protection in the aftermath and receiving harassment from angry fans for years.
Jim Marshall runs the wrong way
This doesn’t quite match up with a playoffs error in the context department, but the sheer absurdity puts it inside the inner circle of sports’ biggest mistakes. Facing the 49ers, Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall recovered a fumble and … he ran to the wrong end zone, leading to a 49ers safety. It really happened, a professional football player mixed up the end zones.
Dustin Johnson grounds his club in the sand
The first 72 holes of the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits ended with Dustin Johnson in a three-way tie with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson, but not for long. At the 18th green, a PGA official delicately explained to Johnson that he had grounded his club in a very small bunker, incurring a two-stroke penalty and knocking Johnson out of the playoff. Johnson said later he didn’t even know it was a bunker.
Fred Brown passes to James Worthy
You think forgetting the score is bad? Try forgetting who your teammates are. Georgetown had one last chance to win it in the 1982 NCAA basketball championship game after a jumper from Michael Jordan gave UNC a 63-62 lead. However, that chance would be squandered when guard Fred Brown mistook the Tar Heels’ James Worthy for a teammate and passed him the ball for a game-ending turnover.
Blake O’Neill keeps trying to punt vs. Michigan State
In rivalry games, failures are forever. In 2015, Michigan was on the verge of its first win in three years over Michigan State. All the Wolverines had to do was punt the ball with 10 seconds left and a 23-21 lead. Then punter Blake O’Neill bobbled the snap. Okay, all the Wolverines had to do was have O’Neill dive on the ball and force the Spartans to have to convert a kick or move 40 yards on one play to end the game. Then O’Neill tried to punt the ball and fumbled it into the arms of a Spartans defender.
Leon Lett fumbles a Super Bowl touchdown
There is a rich tradition of football players finding a way to fumble the ball within a yard of the goal line, but Lett’s stands out because a) he was a defensive lineman about to score a Fat Guy Touchdown and b) it was the Super Bowl. It didn’t cost the Cowboys the game, but it sure caused some embarrassment for Lett.
Chris Webber forgets how many timeouts he has
Maybe the closest relative to Smith losing track of the score is Chris Webber losing track of timeouts in the 1993 NCAA basketball championship game against UNC. Down 73-71 with 11 seconds left and trapped at halfcourt, Webber attempted to call timeout. Except he didn’t have any timeouts. And it’s technical foul to call a timeout with none remaining.
Bill Buckner misses a grounder
It’s difficult to fathom what it would take to top this as baseball’s greatest error. The Red Sox were an out away from winning the 1986 World Series and ending the Curse of the Bambino. It was a simple grounder for first baseman Bill Buckner to scoop up and end the game. Well, the game did end, but only after Buckner rushed the ball, missed it with his glove and watched the Mets walk off the field on their way to an eventual Game 7 win.
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