Ejected for Smiling, Scapegoating, and a “Rigged Game”: The Five Most Egregious Referee Mistakes in NBA History

  • Mark Cuban said a referee’s handling of a call Wednesday was one of the worst ever
  • There have been some horrible and hilariously bad calls across NBA history
  • One obvious error was when Kevin Durant “saved” a ball despite being out of bounds
  • Tim Duncan’s only ejection in his career was for smiling while sitting on the bench
NBA referees
Refs, as human beings, make their share of bad calls, but here are the five worst mistakes ever by an NBA referee. [Image: Flickr.com / Michael E. Lee]

Mark Cuban delivers scathing criticism

During a Wednesday night matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks, a sequence of events led to Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban claiming he saw one of the worst referee mistakes “possibly in the history of the NBA.”

The call, which gave Golden State the ball under the Dallas basket despite confusing signals and an announcement that it was the Mavs’ ball, gave the Warriors two free points in a crucial game they went on to win by exactly two points.

In honor of the fiasco that has left one of the NBA’s billionaire owners feuding with the referee, VegasSlotsOnline News compiled the biggest officiating errors in NBA history. Buckle up.

Top five NBA referee mistakes ever

2002 Western Conference Finals Game Six: Kings vs. Lakers 

The Los Angeles Lakers had won back-to-back NBA championships, but found themselves trailing three games to two to the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal combined for 58 points in Game Five, but did not have enough as Sacramento escaped with a 92-91 win.

The Kings had a star-studded roster with Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, and Vlade Divac, among other standouts. The Lakers, meanwhile, had the Shaq-Kobe duo, the league’s most intimidating pairing of teammates. 

40 free throws, 27 of them in the fourth quarter, compared to the Kings’ 25 for the entire game

Ex-referee Tim Donaghy, who was in charge of Game Six, has since claimed that the NBA advised referees to influence the final outcome in certain matchups, and that this game was one of them. The Lakers shot 40 free throws, 27 of them in the fourth quarter, compared to the Kings’ 25 for the entire game, to pull off a 106-102 win. They then went on to win Game Seven 112-106 and advance to the NBA Finals.

During the momentum-shifting Game Six, Bryant got away with elbowing Bibby in the face for no foul and Shaq was allowed to toss Divac around all night. Almost every 50/50 call went L.A.’s way.

Donaghy admitted to betting on games that he officiated while dealing with a gambling addiction in 2007, meaning that his word is not the most reliable, but still, it does not take inside information to know the game was called in favor of the purple and gold.

Joey Crawford joins the action

Is there anything worse than getting called for a foul on a clean play? How about getting blamed for a referee fouling a player?

The 2005 Eastern Conference Finals were between the defending league champions Detroit Pistons and the number-one seed in the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat. The Pistons led by three points with less than 20 seconds left in Game Seven until the head referee, Joey Crawford, decided to get in on the action.

ran right into the Heat player’s chest and then hilariously called a foul on Chauncey Billups

The veteran official was hustling down the court to keep up with the Heat, who were in transition. Dwyane Wade whipped the ball ahead to Damon Jones who ran towards the corner and then made a hard pivot backward; Crawford, still busting down the sideline, ran right into the Heat player’s chest and then hilariously called a foul on Chauncey Billups, the nearest defender, as if he had committed the foul.

The ego-saving decision by the head whistle did not come back to haunt the Pistons, who won the game 88-82 and advanced to their second straight NBA Finals, where they fell to the San Antonio Spurs in seven games, but given the stakes and the situation, it is one of the most hilarious calls and also one of the biggest NBA referee mistakes ever.

Kevin Durant “saves” the ball 

Remember the schoolyard chant of “Get your eyes checked ref!” or “Ref needs glasses!”? Both are appropriate here.

On January 3, 2019, the Houston Rockets were taking on the Warriors in Oakland, California. The two teams had just gone to seven games in the Western Conference Finals the season prior, and there was a legitimate belief that Houston’s unique style would be enough to end the Dubs’ dynasty.

With just about 30 seconds left in overtime and the game tied at 132, Kevin Durant drove hard with his left hand before James Harden snuck a hand in and poked the ball loose. Durant continued pursuing the ball and Houston’s PJ Tucker dove to recover it, and the ball ended up leaking into the corner near the baseline. 

blatantly over the line when he smacked it over to his teammate

Durant had already taken three steps out of bounds and was blatantly over the line when he smacked it over to his teammate, Klay Thompson, who swung it to an open Steph Curry for the go-ahead basket with just 22.2 seconds left.

Luckily for the Rockets, Harden nailed a game-winning three-pointer with just 2.7 seconds left, and the egregious missed call came to be for nothing. But still, it’s hard to find a more obvious oversight in NBA history than this one.

The King’s nightmare

Looking for a dose of modernity? Look no further than an overtime matchup between the Lakers and Boston Celtics on January 28.

The Lakers and the Celtics are the NBA’s two winningest franchises ever and have a deep-rooted rivalry. On this infamous night, L.A. was visiting TD Garden to take on the Celtics who, at the time, were the crown jewel of the Eastern Conference.

The two exchanged blows all night long until the purple and gold had a side out of bounds with 4.1 seconds left. LeBron James picked up the ball, took on three defenders as he raced to the basket, and put up a layup that careened away from the basket as regulation ended with both teams knotted at 105.

That’s what the situation seemed to be, until a replay review revealed two glaring problems. First, James quite clearly traveled on his way to the hoop as he dealt with three defenders draped over him, but even more egregiously, Boston’s Jayson Tatum took a massive windup and smacked the King right on the forearm as he was about to release the ball, which is why it ended so far off the mark.

Neither of these infractions piqued the curiosity of the refs, who waved the game into overtime, business as usual. Boston went on to win 125-121 despite 41 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists from James thanks to the NBA referee mistakes.

Crawford returns

On April 15, 2007, the Spurs were facing the Dallas Mavericks. San Antonio was on its way to an NBA Finals championship, but first had to get past a regular-season matchup with a tough Dallas team.

The Spurs were led by Tim Duncan, one of the most unproblematic superstars in the history of sports. After all, nobody can have a nickname of “The Big Fundamental” and not have a relatively vanilla personality (sorry, Tim). 

assumed that he was laughing at him and hit him with a technical foul

Duncan picked up an offensive foul in the third quarter and went to go sit on the bench – smart coaching by Gregg Popovich. On the very next play, Crawford spotted Duncan laughing on the bench and assumed that he was laughing at him and hit him with a technical foul. Two shots for Dallas.

A flabbergasted Duncan could do nothing but smile at the encounter and go back to watching the game from the bench. Then, lightning struck twice.

The Spurs were called for a foul on defense a minute later and Duncan started laughing, seemingly in disagreement with the call. Crawford did not hesitate to give him his second technical and throw him out of the game. Duncan retired in 2016 with 1,392 games under his belt, and that was the only one from which he was ever ejected. 

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