With a couple more months of offseason left to go, now is the perfect time to dive into a few of the Lakers’ most memorable playoff moments. However, the goal here isn’t just to remember these moments, it is to remember the moments leading up to THE moment that overshadowed everything in that game, and sometimes the entire series. So let’s travel back in time history and recontextualize some of our favorite Lakers memories in order to fully appreciate their awesomeness.
To start, I re-watched Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals between the Lakers and Spurs, a game that went down to the wire with both teams trading blows all the way until the final buzzer.
This was the year that Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the rest of the Lakers team on the heels of being eliminated in the 2003 Western Conference semis to the eventual champion Spurs. 2004’s Spurs-Lakers semis marked a highly anticipated rematch between the two franchises that had combined to win the past five NBA Championships.
The Spurs won the first two games of the series at home before the Lakers took their two in Los Angeles. With the series headed back to Texas for a swing game, fans of both teams waited in anticipation for the contest that could define their season.
Before reaching the end of the back-and-forth finale that made this night notable, it was the underperformance of the game’s biggest superstars that drove the up-and-down nature of this classic game.
Regardless of whether he was in a groove, Kobe Bryant always forced the issue. On his best nights, Kobe could string together a run of impossible pull-up jumpers, drawing appreciation from even the most notoriously unfriendly road crowds in the league. On his worst nights, however, those tough mid-rangers could feel forced, kicking him and his teammates out of the rhythm of the game.
Coming off a scalding 42-point performance in the preceding Game 4, Kobe at first appeared to be in a groove. However, suffocated by Devin Brown’s on-ball defense, Bryant fell into a rut in the second half, shooting just 4-13 after the break with three turnovers in the fourth quarter.
Shaq too was unable to dominate as he had for much of his playoff career to date, as his early foul trouble limited him to just nine field goal attempts over the course of the entire game.
The Spurs too were unable to rely on their most consistent scorer in Game 5. Like Kobe, Tim Duncan had a pair of divergent halves, though they came in the opposite order of Kobe’s. After the first two periods, Timmy had coughed the ball up five times, unable to successfully pass out of the pressure of the Lakers’ rapid-fire double-teams.
According to Stathead, six of Duncan’s 10 highest turnover games in the playoffs came against Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers, with this game being one of them.
Back and forth
Through much of the first three quarters of this game, the Lakers were in the driver’s seat. Their lead scarcely stretched beyond a handful of points, but given how the two teams’ total score didn’t even eclipse 150 points, those single-digit leads felt substantial.
Then, the Lakers stepped on the gas, extending their lead to 16 on Devean George’s third 3-pointer of the frame with just 4:58 to go in the period.
However, the tide turned as the clock wound down. The Lakers squandered their lead with one of the worst droughts you’ll ever see from an NBA offense, missing 17 of 19 field-goal attempts from the close of the third through the majority of the fourth. Finally, Shaquille O’Neal cashed in one of his patented one-handed floaters from the middle of the paint with 1:57 remaining, making it a 71-70 Spurs lead.
Big time players...
Within the game’s final minute, it was the two teams’ most dominant playmakers who yet again proved their mettle, despite each having subpar performances up to this point.
Instead of trying to win the game by way of some hero ball, as he had for much of the fourth quarter, Kobe leveraged a screen from Malone on the left wing to take an open pull-up two with 11 seconds left. With the Lakers now up 72-71, Kobe lumbered to the bench looking completely drained, having played just under 47 minutes of the 48-minute game.
Now it was Duncan’s turn to take it to the Lakers.
With one of the toughest clutch shots you’ll ever see in any setting, Tim Duncan drilled a running fade away from the top of the key over Shaquille O’Neal for what (at the time) felt like a game-winner. Even Gregg Popovich looked like he thought it was over.
If he’d taken a half-second longer (or as is explained later, even a tenth of a second more), Duncan’s make might be one of the most cherished clutch scores in the history of the league.
However, with time still left in regulation, this story was far from over...
The Essentiality of Derek Fisher
Before discussing the final play of this game, it’s worth breaking down who was on the court and why.
Other than Devean George, no role player on the Lakers had made themselves more valuable than Derek Fisher.
Though he only had six points through 47 minutes and 59.6 seconds of regulation, Fisher had forced three Spurs turnovers by way of the charge foul, including one early on in the fourth that negated a made Tony Parker three.
He had even outplayed then-future Hall-of-Famer Gary Payton within the context of these Lakers, one of the team’s “Big 4” and the man who took Fisher’s starting role when he joined the Lakers in the preceding offseason.
Because of his ability to mesh with the team’s true Big 2 by simply executing the Triangle offense and knocking down open shots, Fisher found himself in place of George along with the other four starters for the final play of the game. And because of his shooting ability, Fisher started the play in a “Stack” formation floor with Payton set to inbound the ball with 0.4 seconds remaining on the clock.
The Trent Tucker Rule
Speaking of “0.4 seconds,” there wouldn’t have even been a final play after Duncan’s own near game-winner if it wasn’t for the person at the scorer’s table with his hand on the button that stops the clock. If he were just a tenth of a second slower, “The Trent Tucker Rule,” which disallows “any regular shot to be taken...with under 0.3 seconds left,” would have ended the night right there.
However, due to the unsung heroics of that quick-triggered timekeeper, the Lakers were left with one last chance.
As Payton looked to find an open target, he scanned his options, seeing all of his superstar teammates swarmed by Spurs. Kobe was double-teamed above the break, and San Antonio center Rasho Nesterovic was all over Shaq, making a lob pass for an alley-oop practically impossible. Even Karl Malone was locked up by Tim Duncan in deep 2-point territory.
Instead, poetically, Payton found the man who had eclipsed him in the rotation, dishing the ball to Fisher on the short left wing. In a single deft move, Fisher spun around, firing off one of his patented lefty rainbow jumpers, and barely beat the buzzer to conclude one of the most unlikely endings of a playoff game you will ever see.
And before the officials could even look to review whether he’d gotten the shot off in time, Fisher and his teammates “[ran] to the dressing room and [tried] to get on the plane,” according to Al Michaels’ iconic commentating.
The End of an Era
After the game-winner was confirmed by the referees and the team finally did actually get on that plane, the Lakers pulled away late in Game 6, eliminating the possibility of a Game 7 and allowing Fisher’s 0.4-second buzzer beater to live on as the defining memory of the franchise’s final triumph over the rival Spurs in the Shaq and Kobe era.
The Lakers went on to beat Kevin Garnett’s Timberwolves over six games in the Western Conference Finals before suffering an — at the time — shocking gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the defensive powerhouse Detroit Pistons.
The Finals loss was the final nail in the coffin for an early superteam that looked unbeatable when formed over the previous summer. In the subsequent offseason, Karl Malone retired, Gary Payton left for the Celtics (yuck), and the Kobe-Shaq feud was resolved with a trade that sent O’Neal to the Miami Heat for Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, and a first-round pick.
Personally, the 0.4-second shot lives on as one of my most-treasured Lakers memories. I was 10 years old in 2004, and for me, Fisher’s swish still epitomizes the elation of watching a singular winning moment, not just in basketball, but in any sporting event.
The unbelievable nature of the shot itself, the fact that it represented the absolute pinnacle of Derek Fisher’s many crunchtime heroics, and the way it bookended one of the more dominant dynasties in NBA history have made it a favorite amongst the Lakers faithful for the last 18 years, which will almost certainly continue for as long as the franchise exists.