Written by Jared Rosenthal and Brody Shefren
Northwestern fan crying in March Madness tourney vs. Gonzaga (photo courtesy of Sporting News)
Sports are the most imperfectly perfect forms of entertainment. A player that makes an error in the bottom of the ninth can lead to the creation of a new World Series champion on the other side of the field. A player that misses a tackle on third and inches can result in an opponent’s Super Bowl victory. A player that hits the crossbar on a penalty shot can spark momentum for the enemy and result in a Stanley Cup loss. When it comes to basketball, these details are hyper-critical to pay attention to as they are pertinent among referees, coaches, and players. Here is a list of 10 significant mistakes that have occured in the history of the NBA from all angles of the game, resulting in season altering outcomes.
James Harden Clearly Dunks the Basketball Through the Hoop, but the Referees Take Away the Bucket (2019 vs. San Antonio)
James Harden’s dunk that was taken away (photo courtesy of ABC13 Houston)
December 3, 2019, was one of the most controversial nights in the history of NBA regular season play. The Houston Rockets, who were 13-6 at the time, blew a 22 point lead to the San Antonio Spurs, who were 7-14 at the time. The main controversy surrounding this game occurred with a little under eight minutes left in the fourth quarter as the Spurs were trailing by 13. James Harden stole the ball from Rudy Gay which lead to a fastbreak dunk...but the referees discredited the basket. These valuable two points, which were taken away, caused a large momentum shift, leading to the Spurs winning by two points in double overtime. Though the 2019-2020 season is not over yet, this Houston loss could end up being the difference between playing against the Jazz or the Clippers in round one of the Western Conference Playoffs.
Coach Lenny Wilkens puts Craig Ehlo on Michael Jordan Instead of Ron Harper
In honor of Michael Jordan’s performance in his iconic game against the Cavs, Nike designed this shoe to commemorate the “nail in the coffin” shot (photo courtesy of Sole Collector).
In game five of the first round in the 1988 NBA playoffs, the Chicago Bulls took on the Cleveland Cavaliers in a showdown that would be remembered for ages. As the game was reaching its final moments, Jordan received an inbounds pass in the frontcourt, took a few dribbles, and nailed a fadeaway jumper coming off of his non-dominant shooting shoulder to advance past the Cavs. The head scratcher: why the heck was Ron Harper not locking up MJ on that final play? Harper was indisputably the best defensive player on the Cavs roster, and yet for the final play of the game, Coach Lenny Wilkens had Craig Ehlo on Michael!? In The Last Dance, Ron expressed that he knew before the play how ginormous of a mistake Lenny had just made, but he was unable to overrule Wilkens’ choice.
George Hill Chokes on Second Free Throw, J.R. Smith has a Brain Cramp
Golden State Warriors celebrating their championship (photo courtesy of The Mercury News)
The first game of the 2018 NBA Finals was just as heart-wrenching and series-altering as Nick Anderson’s missed free throws (#8 on our list) in the 1995 NBA Finals. When the Warriors used to play at Oracle Arena--between seeing that sea of gold and yellow and hearing the noise bounce off the tightly constructed dimensions of the building--it was one of the most demoralizing environments that existed in professional sports. When you consider how the Cavaliers had a chance to win this game from either A) George Hill’s second free throw or B) J.R. Smith’s offensive rebound and potential putback, it makes you cringe at the idea of how close they were to escaping the Bay Area with at least one win under their belt. If these two mistakes never happened, then maybe the Cavaliers would have had enough firepower to claim another three wins. Ultimately, the Warriors went on to win this game and the next three, claiming the Larry O’Brien trophy in a trouble-free, 4-0 sweep.
The String of Unfortunate Events: Reggie Miller’s Eight Points in Nine Seconds vs. New York Knicks
Reggie Miller coming in clutch (photo courtesy of Bleacher Report)
In another memorable opening game to a notable playoff series, Reggie Miller’s Pacers were able to prevail and presumably win the series in seven, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. In the final possessions of game one, Reggie originally hit a quick three-pointer with less than twenty seconds left. Next, the mistake which enabled the chaotic string of events to happen began when Anthony Mason’s inbound pass was intercepted by Reggie and he went on to knock down another three-pointer. Next, John Starks missed both of his free throws and Patrick Ewing missed the putback after grabbing the offensive board on the second miss. Reggie Miller was fouled shortly after, hit his free throws, and the ball game ended in a 107-105 Pacers victory.
Isiah Thomas’ Turnover vs. Celtics
On-court footage from the POV of Bird’s steal (photo courtesy of NBA.com)
In the fifth game of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons had a one point lead with five seconds left. If Detroit had won this game, they would have only had to win game six, which then would have taken them to the NBA Finals. Instead, Isaiah Thomas panicked and rushed the inbounds pass, allowing Larry Bird to steal it and score a layup with one second left and securing the win. The Celtics went on to win the series, but lost to Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the championship series.
Steve Kerr’s Bench Play Decisions
Steve Kerr in a somber mood (photo courtesy of NBC Sports)
Game seven of the NBA Finals in 2016 was the greatest NBA game in the last 20 years. You may remember this game because of the “LeBlock”, or Kyrie’s insane three-pointer in Curry’s face, but one of Steve Kerr’s coaching mistakes made an impact on the losing outcome of this game for him and his team. Harrison Barnes averaged 12 points and five rebounds per game in 2016. Considering this, in the most meaningful game of the season, his role was radically reduced, leading to Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejao racking up minutes that Barnes should have played. Between Ezeli and Varejao, the two men averaged four points and five rebounds per game...so basically nothing. During game seven, the two played 19 too many minutes, as Barnes could have EASILY subbed them out, instilling his useful presence in the game. When the game ended, Barnes’ statsheet read: 10 points, two rebounds, and one assist, despite the time restraint Kerr put on his game. Golden State wound up losing the 2016 championship.
Karl Malone Turns the Ball Over in Game Six of the 1998 NBA Finals
MJ’s final shot as a Chicago Bull as a result of Malone’s turnover (photo courtesy of Desert News)
It’s June 14, 1998. The Utah Jazz lead the Chicago Bulls by one point with the clock winding down in the sixth game of the 1998 NBA Finals. The star point guard for Utah, John Stockton, takes the ball up the court and dishes the rock to Karl Malone, the 1997 NBA MVP. As Malone is grinding in the post, eager to get off a hook shot or maneuver his body en route to getting an easy layup, Michael Jordan snatches the ball and the fate of the championship right from his hands. Michael follows this steal up with his infamous crossover dagger with 5.2 seconds to go, solidifying Chicago’s sixth championship in eight years. Who knows how this game may have ended if Malone does not turn the ball over, but maybe he would have been able to shatter the Bulls’ confidence with a bucket of his own in those final seconds, and then win the following game on his home floor.
Nick Anderson Misses Four Consecutive Free Throws in the 1995 NBA Finals
Nick Anderson at the line, trying to focus after feeling disgruntled from the missed free throws (photo courtesy of ESPN.com)
Don’t get me wrong, the Houston Rockets had solid championship teams in their back-to-back NBA Finals runs, but there was definitely some luck on their side.The epitome of being a choke artist was visibly demonstrated with Nick Anderson as he had four separate chances to seal the first game of the NBA Finals at home, but was unable to convert. Houston trailed by three points and sent Anderson to the line with under eight seconds left in the game, and he ended up missing both free throws. On his second missed free throw, he grabbed his own rebound and was put back on the charity stripe with a little over five seconds remaining. As you can predict, he missed his next two free throws, Houston called a timeout and Kenny “The Jet” Smith hammered a three to send the game to OT and presumably win. Knowing how poorly Houston had just played and still being able to win gave the Rockets the confidence to win the next three games by understanding that regardless of how impressive or disgusting they played, they would win.
Deandre Jordan Not Aware of Shot Clock
Deandre Jordan (left) hearing out Chris Pauls’ (right) criticism (photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times)
Deandre’s cluelessness on March 4, 2015 against the Trailblazers was one of the most astonishing mistakes I have ever witnessed. Because the shot and game clocks were at around the same time marks as the fourth quarter was coming to a conclusion, when Chris Paul launched a three-pointer and missed, there was still time left in the game, but Deandre Jordan got the rebound and thought that the shot clock buzzer was the game clock one! This led to an overtime period being played and the Clips eventually losing by five. This game cost the Clippers the second seed (ended up being the third seed in the Western Conference) in the 2015 Western Conference Playoffs. Furthermore, when Los Angeles advanced to their Western Conference Semifinal matchup against the Houston Rockets, they were unable to get home court advantage and lost in seven games.
Players that Blatantly Travel
Giannis (left) and Harden (right) (photo courtesy of Medium)
Between the social media rivals in James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo, both have been able to accumulate tons of points and wins over the years from their controversial step-back jumpers (Harden) and euro-steps (Giannis). The concept of traveling comes down to referee discretion, so although there is no single “mistake” that can be affiliated with the refs, I think that meshing it all under the same umbrella of being one major mistake--for the refs as a whole--is fair. Not to mention, LeBron has had his own traveling violations that have not been called! Nevertheless, I still enjoy watching players have the ability to showcase jaw-dropping moves which lead to unbelievable moments in the sport.
With the NBA season coming back on July 31, you can most definitely expect some games to have a variety of moments that are similar to the ones listed above. Between missed free throws, poor coaching decisions, questionable calls, and atrocious turnovers you are guaranteed to see a few of these. Nonetheless, players have been able to make a return to practice facilities and reconnect with teammates, so the expectation is that by the end of July, we can see our favorite players and teams at their best.
Kawhi (left), Giannis (middle left), LeBron (middle right), and Jimmy Butler (right) (photo courtesy of ClutchPoints)