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Pulling a rabbit out of the hat

In .4 of a second, the Lakers may have won the NBA title

Posted: Friday May 14, 2004 11:10AM; Updated: Friday May 14, 2004 7:57PM
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Derek Fisher; Manu Ginobili
Derek Fisher's last-second prayer may have smote not only the Spurs but the title hopes of the rest of the NBA.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It will go down as one of the wildest NBA playoff games in history. Certainly the wildest last second in playoff history. As quickly as Game 5 switched hands, so too, might the 2004 NBA title have gone from the Spurs to the Lakers.

"One lucky shot deserves another," Shaquille O'Neal said in the moments after the game. Amen, Big Aristotle. You could watch League Pass every night for the next 50 years and not see a finish like that again. One miracle shot, maybe. But two? In a row? Nope.

How happy do you think David Stern is that he incorporated those red lights on the backboard (signaling the end of each quarter) and instant replay? The Spurs protest notwithstanding, it would be a lot worse for the NBA right now if we all didn't see visual proof that Derek Fisher got that shot off in time. Just imagine the outcry in San Antonio. The Lakers conspiracy theorists would have had Oliver Stone on speed dial.

Give Lakers coach Phil Jackson credit as well. When Tim Duncan's fallaway 20-footer (He wasn't even looking at the basket!) over Shaq splashed down, most NBA coaches would have smashed a clipboard into pieces. The Zen Master barely flinched.

He just got up off the bench, signaled for timeout, and started drawing up a play. Apparently a good one, too. Sure, he was as surprised as anyone when Fisher's equally-absurd effort over Manu Ginobili went through the net, but at least he gave his team a Plan B in case Kobe Bryant was covered.

Somewhere Jerry Buss is feeling a lot better about paying Jackson that $6 million annual salary right now. The Lakers, obviously, are now in prime position to win the championship. According to the NBA, the team that wins Game 5 of a split series goes on to take the series 83 percent of the time (96 of 115). L.A. still has work to do, in this series and beyond, but it looks good.

As for the Spurs, meanwhile, they know deep down they have nobody to blame but themselves. They can decry Fisher's lucky shot -- and the refs' slow trigger finger -- but the fact is the Lakers were the better team most of Game 5.

In the biggest game of their season -- at home -- San Antonio laid an egg for the first 40 minutes. The Spurs just could not get in any offensive rhythm. Hedo Turkoglu and Tony Parker couldn't knock down open shots, Parker kept dribbling into traffic and losing the ball and Ginobili wasn't able to create his usual havoc. The Spurs did turn up their defense at the end to get back in the game, but they were pressing their luck the entire way. Kobe and Shaq each had shots go in and out that could have pretty much iced the game. Then Tim Duncan hits not one -- but two! -- prayers in succession to keep the Spurs alive.

Can San Antonio bounce back? It's possible.

Two years ago, New Jersey blew a 21-point fourth-quarter lead to lose to the Celtics in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. Afterward, all the pundits (including yours truly) said the heartbroken Nets would never recover. They not only recovered; they swept the next three games to take the series. If the Spurs are going to bounce back, though, they're going to have to play a lot better than they have the past three games. For coach Gregg Popovich, that should be the focus right now. He needs to find a way to put the Spurs in position where a lucky shot (or two) won't make a difference.

Marty Burns covers pro basketball for SI.com.