Sunk History: Derek Fisher's 'one lucky shot' with 0.4 seconds left is frozen in NBA time

Ben Rohrbach
·7 min read

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with the NBA’s future still so uncertain, we look again to the past, polishing up our Dunk History series — with a twist. If you are in need of a momentary distraction from the state of an increasingly isolated world, remember with us some of the most electrifying baskets and improbable buckets in the game’s history, from buzzer-beaters to circus shots. This is Sunk History.

Today, we revisit Derek Fisher’s timeless buzzer-beater with 0.4 seconds remaining.

[Dunk History, collected: Our series on the most scintillating slams of yesteryear]

The San Antonio Spurs dynasty clashed with a host of Hall of Famers from Kobe Bryant to LeBron James over a two-decade reign, but no player might have been more hated in the Alamo City than Derek Fisher. South Texans may have more hate for D-Fish than Matt Barnes, Billy Hunter, Mark Cuban, Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and municipalities from Salt Lake City to New York combined, which is a lot.

Lakers guard Derek Fisher beat the buzzer by an instant, but the Spurs maintain he did not beat the clock. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Lakers guard Derek Fisher beat the buzzer by an instant, but the Spurs maintain he did not beat the clock. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

The longtime Los Angeles Lakers point guard already had a long history with the San Antonio faithful by the time his foul went uncalled on Brent Barry’s series-tying shot attempt in Game 4 of the 2008 Western Conference finals, all but ending the defending champion Spurs’ chances of a repeat. Fisher also erupted for a playoff career-high 28 points to cap a sweep of San Antonio in the 2001 Western Conference finals.

Gregg Popovich’s charges exacted some revenge en route to the second of five championships, ending a Lakers string of three straight titles in the 2003 Western Conference semifinals and sending Fisher home crying. But D-Fish solidified his status as a certified Spurs killer in the second-round rematch a year later.

A series of miracles in 11 seconds

The Lakers and Spurs were deadlocked at two games apiece in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals when Bryant buried a 20-footer to put Los Angeles up 72-71 with 11 seconds left. Tim Duncan responded with an off-balance 18-footer that would be a Sunk History episode all of its own if not for Fisher.

With 0.4 seconds remaining, the Lakers sandwiched a pair of timeouts around a Spurs timeout, drawing and redrawing up a prayer. With future Hall of Famers Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone on the floor and Gary Payton inbounding the ball for L.A., the only option on a closely defended set was Fisher.

Giving up five inches to the defender giving chase — Manu Ginobili, another future Hall of Famer — the 6-foot-1 Fisher corralled Payton’s pass, twisted and fired all in one motion, swishing a miracle 18-footer.

Fisher and the Lakers ran to the locker room before referees confirmed the shot that ended San Antonio’s 17-game home winning streak. It turns out they never had to return to the SBC Center court that season.

“Most times the play’s not for me,” Fisher told the Associated Press rather nonchalantly. “This is special. We almost gave this game away. I think tonight’s game is indicative of how our season has gone.”

Payton’s postgame reaction was more appropriate: “We had to answer a prayer. A prayer was answered.”

And Shaq’s, as ever, was the best: “One lucky shot deserves another.”

How long is 0.4 seconds?

Across the hall, Spurs guard Devin Brown countered, “Four-tenths of a second, four-tenths of a second. I still can’t get that out of my mind. How do you catch a ball and make a shot in four-tenths of a second?”

Upon their own review, Spurs officials were convinced the clock started late, and general manager R.C. Buford could reportedly be heard yelling about the dagger from the depths of the arena. In classic Popovich fashion, the coach said afterward, “I think it definitely started late. Sometimes life’s tough.”

A frame-by-frame breakdown does show a few extra screenshots with the ball in Fisher’s hand before the tenths of a second start to tick off the clock and he releases the instant before the 0.1 flips to all zeroes. Human error is greater than a snap of the fingers, but the Spurs filed a protest before midnight anyhow.

No protest had ever been upheld under commissioner David Stern, and this one was no different. The NBA denied the Spurs before Game 6 at the Staples Center, where they lost by double digits. No Game 7 back in San Antonio. No primetime matchup between Duncan and Kevin Garnett, whose Minnesota Timberwolves lost the Western Conference finals to the Lakers in six games. And no Finals matchup with a Detroit Pistons team that beat L.A. in five games and lost a seven-game title set to the Spurs in 2005.

“You talk to all [our] technological guys and they put it up on the screen, and it did start late,” Popovich responded, according to the L.A. Times. “There’s no doubt that the clock started late, but that’s using all the technological stuff that I don’t understand. But in reality, the refs did a great job. They did it as quickly as they could. The ball went in and they win the game. You can’t expect anything different in reality. It’s a good decision. We just wanted to do our due diligence and give them something to think about.”

The aftermath of ‘one lucky shot’

Robert Horry, who joined the Spurs after narrowly missing a winner for the Lakers in Game 5 of the 2003 Western Conference semifinals that would have added to his buzzer-beating lore, later laid the blame for Fisher’s miracle at Popovich’s feet. Horry says he wanted to steer the pass to the perimeter, but Popovich ordered him to double Bryant, so he left Payton a window to find Fisher for a more manageable angle.

As for Fisher, he could not watch the replay of his defining moment for another week, telling L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke before the Finals, “Couldn’t do it sooner. Too emotional, too overwhelming.”

So, was it lucky? “I literally rewind it 30 or 40 times,” Fisher told Plaschke. “And now I know. This wasn’t some shot you throw up from halfcourt behind your back. This wasn’t some fluke. This was not lucky.”

The shot may not have resulted in a ring, but he was rewarded that summer with a six-year, $37 million deal with the Golden State Warriors that saw him get traded two years later to Utah, where his infant daughter was diagnosed with retinoblastoma. Following her surgery at a New York hospital in May 2007, Fisher famously arrived via police escort mid-game to deliver an overtime victory for the Jazz.

The Jazz granted Fisher’s offseason request to find a team closer to a hospital that could monitor his daughter’s recovery, and he soon joined the Lakers. He made three more Finals trips in another four-plus seasons in L.A., collecting more clutch buckets to help deliver a couple more titles in 2009 and 2010.

D-Fish played four more seasons, 18 total, long enough to make as many big shots as he did enemies.

More Sunk History:

Michael Jordan puts it all on the line and wins big with ‘The Shot’

When Steph Curry redefined what it meant to shoot from deep

Before Paul Pierce was the Finals MVP, he was the trash-talking Truth

Alonzo Mourning sunk the Celtics, a.k.a., when the Hornets mattered

MJ stuns Lakers, Marv Albert with 'spectacular move' in NBA Finals

Isaiah Rider's 'Play of the Decade' is still crazy after all these years

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach