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Something fishy is going on here

Thrilling Game 5 will go down as top moment in great rivalry
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When this rivalry is commemorated in another decade or so, the way Magic vs. Bird and Michael Jordan against his own legend were commemorated, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal will trot to halfcourt, shake hands and pose for the cameras and a gray-flecked David Stern will smile broadly, knowing the NBA did not die of apathy in the new millennium.

By then, Kobe Bryant may still make noisy dins go dead quiet with a drained jump shot in the middle of May, in the middle of the most riveting postseason series since the last time the Los Angeles Lakers were in a scrap for their season.

By then, Duncan will tease O'Neal about that off-balance jumper he threw up Thursday night, his body going left, the ball going right, a 7-foot-1, 345-pound man hanging on him like lint before it swished through and sent SBC Center into a tizzy with four-tenths of a second remaining.

And O'Neal will come back with a simple reply: "How 'bout Fish's shot?"

Best of nine? Eleven?

The most accomplished teams in pro basketball gave us a playoff heirloom, a pulsating thriller that did not end until Duncan and the Spurs had come back from a 16-point deficit and a bit-part role player cruelly took Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals back, taking an inbounds pass, turning and firing in one motion from 18 feet away on the left wing.

Derek Fisher -- "Fish" to his teammates and friends -- took that inbounds pass from Gary Payton and, guarded tightly by Manu Ginobili, somehow squared his body with the rim and beat the buzzer to give the Lakers a 74-73 victory that could very well propel them to their fourth championship in five seasons.

All net, all over?

The way this impossibly wild series has gone, it would not be shocking to see San Antonio buck up in Los Angeles on Saturday night and summon a way to send this back here for a reality series conclusion not to be missed next Wednesday. But Fisher's shot, his perfect left-handed release, the swish that followed, did almost as much to siphon emotion out of a building as Jordan did in 1998 when he beat Utah in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

It was that quiet at Delta Center that night, too. And while it would be easy to dismiss a second-round series as not as important, let's be honest about Spurs-Lakers: As it has been for the last few years and will continue to be until time, injury and circumstance do their rosters part, their rivalry is for the ring.

Fisher's shot may very well give Phil Jackson the impetus to surpass Red Auerbach's 10 championships in, oh, about another month. We know the playoffs have run longer than most of Ken Burns's work and that the first round lasted five days longer than the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But this wondrous game, a taut thriller that involved three lead changes in the final 11.5 seconds, this is why we stay up late and go to work with that groggy smile in the morning.

Stern also was treated to the theater Thursday night. He made the game, explaining beforehand why, as NBA commissioner, he is letting his playoff games compete against "Nightline" and "Last Call." Game 6 of the Lakers-Spurs series begins Saturday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern, meaning it will end after 1 a.m. So much for the youth-marketing movement. Many nights the Sacramento-Minnesota series might as well serve as a lead-in for "Good Morning America."

"The best judge is the ratings," Stern began. "We're getting great ratings for our late games."

He also diplomatically shot down the notion that he wants the Lakers in the Finals as badly as the Lakers wanted this game.

"Last night I was at dinner in New York held by Mayor Bloomberg for the mayor of Beijing," Stern said. "And we were talking about Yao Ming, okay? That was the topic of conversation. To me, that's great. That's exciting to be associated with."

But that's not what a hoops nation was talking about this weekend. Bryant and the revitalized basketball team in Los Angeles was invoked most often, the possibility that this constellation of all-stars could somehow pull this series out after being down 2-0. Only seven teams in league history have crawled out of an 0-2 hole to win a series.

Stern went on about that diverse San Antonio roster, "The Frenchman," Tony Parker, and "an Argentinian," Ginobili. And the pride of St. Croix, Duncan, and the Turkish forward Hedo Turkoglu. But what he knows and could not say is that the Spurs have little Q rating unless their opponents' names are Kobe and Shaq. There were few dead spots. The third quarter percolated with noise and improbable offense by role players. Devean George became Robert Horry, circa mid-1990s, his elongated arms holding the ball aloft, dunking, swishing three-pointers. Then this youngster named Devin Brown, an undrafted kid from the University of Texas-San Antonio, began dropping in 18-footers as if he was playing an intramural pickup game down the road.

Did we mention Brown sneaked in to the arena and was asking for Spurs autographs two years ago, the same guy who nearly bailed Duncan and Parker out as they came back in the third quarter?

How the Lakers managed to scoot home with a 3-2 series lead is still almost baffling. But this was coming.

The germination of this comeback began in Game 2, not in Los Angeles last weekend. It was in the second half of a 10-point loss that the Lakers began to get angry instead of frustrated. They had snipped a double-digit Spurs lead to two points before giving up a couple of offensive rebounds off free throws that led to easy put-backs. Parker put them away, but they walked out of here knowing they had found their games and their confidence before they were completely buried.

And Thursday evening, the player they call "Fish" resuscitated the Lakers, brought them back and pulled them ahead in the most dramatic ending imaginable, a perfect swish. When this rivalry is commemorated in a decade or so, they will talk long and hard about that shot.