5 Biggest Brain-Farts in Modern NBA History
Every NBA fan knows the feeling.
You've jumped off the couch, maybe spilling a beverage in the process. Your hands are on your head. Your mouth is open—either stuck in disbelief or still bellowing out, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!"
You've just seen a mental miscue, the most frustrating occurrence in all of sports.
Physical failures might fill blooper reels, but they're inevitable. A lot of moving parts go into every play, and they won't always be in lockstep. But watching something slip away because of a brain fart? That's as agonizing as it gets.
On the anniversary of an all-time gaffe by JR Smith (which we'll dive into later), we're uncovering the five worst mental errors in NBA history and ranking them by a combination of significance and asininity.
5. Hornets Defend Wrong Hoop
A mid-March game in 2013 between the lottery-bound New Orleans Hornets and sub-.500 Los Angeles Lakers could not be memorable for any reason.
But seven years later, it still stands out for a moment of team-wide stupidity.
There were only 25.5 seconds left on the clock. The Hornets had already wasted all of what was once a 25-point advantage and were down two. The Lakers had the ball. New Orleans needed a stop or it was curtains.
L.A. was coming off a timeout but opted against advancing the ball. Instead, it inbounded in front of the goal it was defending—but lined up as if that was its scoring end of the floor. Even though New Orleans had just spent 23-plus minutes defending the other end, all five players took the bait and started shading toward the wrong basket.
Kobe Bryant sprinted toward the other end, Steve Blake hit him in stride and the result is what you see above. New Orleans had perhaps given the game away already, but this was like paying to have it gift-wrapped and covering the expedited shipping charge.
On a scale of "Hmm, that was strange" to a string of all-caps expletives, this was a double facepalm. If there were any kind of stakes at play, this might have been in the running for No. 1.
4. Isiah Thomas Doesn't Take Timeout, Throws Lazy Pass
After years of reigning over the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics were finally on the ropes in 1987. The Detroit Pistons were rounding into bully-ball Bad Boys form, and they had a chance to deliver the knockout punch.
On the heels of consecutive double-digit victories to even up the conference finals at two wins apiece, the Pistons had Game 5 within their grasp ahead of Game 6 on their home floor. But first they had to seal the victory, which started with a foul-line jumper from Isiah Thomas to give Detroit a one-point lead with 17 seconds remaining.
The Celtics let Larry Bird isolate on Rick Mahorn, and Bird motored to the baseline. But a leaping Dennis Rodman erased Bird's layup attempt, and Mahorn chased it down in time to tap it off a Boston player. Detroit took possession deep in its own end with only five seconds left.
Thomas rushed to inbound the ball and spotted an unattended Bill Laimbeer under the basket the Pistons were defending. But Thomas floated the pass, Laimbeer was backpedaling away from it and Bird flew in for the steal, then whipped a pass to a cutting Dennis Johnson for the game-winning layup. Thomas later tipped his cap to Bird, calling it "probably one of the most incredible plays that's ever happened against me."
The Ringer's Bill Simmons had a different take in The Book of Basketball, calling it "the single biggest NBA crunch-time brain fart since the merger." Simmons then rechristened it "a two-part brain fart—he should have called time out, and he never should have thrown a lazy pass toward his own basket."
The Celtics went on to win that series in seven games and advanced to their fourth straight NBA Finals.
Josh Howard Calls Timeout Too Early
The 2006 NBA Finals were knotted at two wins apiece, and if the Miami Heat couldn't find a path to victory in Game 5, they would have needed back-to-back victories on the Dallas Mavericks' home floor.
Josh Howard helped open that door.
After Dirk Nowitzki hit a 19-footer with 9.1 seconds left in overtime, Dallas held a one-point lead. Miami put the ball in Dwyane Wade's hands, and he got to the free-throw line after a touch foul was called on Nowitzki. Wade hit the first, and the Mavericks coaches were telling their players to call a timeout after the second.
But Howard jumped the gun, signaling for a timeout not once, but twice and walking toward the bench after Wade's first free throw. After the referees huddled up, they determined they had to give the Mavericks that timeout—their final of the contest.
"Josh Howard goes to Joe DeRosa and not only once, but twice, asked for a timeout. Forced to call it, simple as that," crew chief Joey Crawford told a pool reporter.
Wade hit the second free throw to put Miami up one, and since Dallas couldn't advance the ball, it could only muster Devin Harris' errant 50-foot attempt. The Mavs then lost Game 6 on their home floor, giving the Heat their first title in franchise history.
As brutal of a blow as Howard's quick trigger proved, at least the intention was right. In his mind, he was following his coaches' orders. That at least frees him from an even higher ranking on this dubious list.
Derek Harper Dribbles Out Clock in Tied Playoff Game
The 43-win Mavericks were fighting an uphill battle against the 54-win Lakers in the 1984 Western Conference semifinals, but they had a chance to even the series 2-2 in Game 4.
The game was tied at 108-108 with 12 seconds left, and the Mavericks took possession after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar misfired on a turnaround jumper. Rolando Blackman cleared the glass and passed to Dale Ellis, who hit Harper on the left wing.
The stage was set for Dallas to get the last shot—only Harper didn't know it. In his mind, the Mavs were up one, so he dribbled out the clock and started a celebratory sprint to his team's bench. It didn't last long, as his teammates and coaches stared at him in disbelief.
Instead of going for the win, the Mavs had given extra time to Magic Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar. That's like throwing chum into a shark tank and then taking a dip. L.A. doubled up Dallas 14-7 in the extra session, taking Game 4 and grabbing a commanding 3-1 edge. It quickly turned that into a 4-1 series win with a 115-99 triumph in Game 5.
"I don't think a lot of people expected to hear from me again," Harper said in 1988, per Chris Baker of the Los Angeles Times. "I think they thought it would ruin my career."
Harper, who committed his blunder as a rookie, went on to have a 16-year career in the Association. The Mavericks retired his number in 2018.
JR Smith Forgets Score in NBA Finals
As head-scratching, cringe-worthy and ultimately costly as these other brain farts were, JR Smith's Game 1 gaffe in the 2018 Finals is the runaway, um, winner (?) of this group.
Smith's Cleveland Cavaliers entered the series as massive underdogs against the juggernaut Golden State Warriors—as they should have been. Cleveland finished fourth in the East, played like a 43-win team and had the Association's second-worst defense.
Its only claim to championship contention was the presence of LeBron James. And since he's crowned King James for a reason, that was almost enough for the Cavaliers to stun the Warriors inside Oracle Arena.
After Stephen Curry put the Warriors up one with 23 seconds left, James had all eyes on him the next time down. He found a cutting George Hill, who was fouled by Klay Thompson and sent to the line. Hill hit the first to tie it, but he missed the second.
Smith snared the rebound with four seconds left and immediately ran out to near half court—with the game tied and the precious final ticks coming off the clock. James pleaded for the ball and eventually just pointed Smith in the right direction. By that point, Smith could only hurry a pass to Hill, but there wasn't enough time to even get a desperation shot up.
Cleveland was blitzed 17-7 in the extra session, and Golden State sprinted to a sweep from there.
Smith claimed to know the game was tied, but then-Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue told reporters, "He thought we were up one."
Maybe the series outcome wouldn't have changed even if Smith saved Game 1, but James, who engineered a brilliant 51-point performance (fifth-most points in Finals history), deserved better. That was his last season in Cleveland, as he booked it to the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency in the following offseason.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.