When this rivalry is commemorated in another decade or so, the way Magic vs. Bird and Michael Jordan against his own legend are still 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.

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

Finally, the bit-part role player, who turned, fired and trumped them all, will take his rightful place among some of the legendary players of his era.

Duncan, Shaq, Kobe and . . . Fish?

"At first I thought it was a little long," Derek Fisher said of that picturesque 18-footer that ended a playoff heirloom at the buzzer here Thursday night. "Halfway there, I knew it was in. And I wanted to get out of there before they reversed it."

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

All net, almost all over.

Fisher -- "Fish" to his teammates and friends -- took that 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.

Scour the league's annals and it will be hard to find a greater exchange of miracle shots in the last seconds. First Bryant, from about 18 feet on the left wing with 11.5 seconds left. Then Duncan, who ran back to the Spurs bench as the arena went berserk. And finally, Fisher, a perfect left-handed release, the swish that followed. Remember the Boston-Phoenix triple-overtime thriller in 1976, the one where Gar Heard hits that crazy shot for Phoenix to force yet another overtime before the Suns bowed? Duncan was essentially Gar Heard Thursday, the guy who hit the miracle shot but still lost the game.

That shot -- which the Spurs filed a protest over after the game, claiming the clock did not start on time -- 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, which gave us three lead changes in the final 11.5 seconds, is why we stay up late and go to work groggy 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. "The best judge is the ratings," Stern said. "We're getting great ratings for our late games."

Bryant and the revitalized Lakers are the biggest reason. The possibility that this constellation of all-stars could somehow pull this series out after being down 2-0 literally has people losing sleep. This is a tough one for Stern. On one hand, he co-opted the idea of globalization before many economists. He led the Dream Team into Barcelona in 1992 like a band leader, selling Magic, Charles and Larry to the world.

He now has what he wants, a decent international player on nearly every team.

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 here. 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.

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

Their 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 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 game.

And Thursday evening, the player they call "Fish" resuscitated the Lakers, brought them back and pulled them ahead. When this rivalry is commemorated in a decade or so, they will talk long and hard about that shot, how Fisher changed history and poor Tim Duncan looked a lot like Gar Heard.