Talk about a late whistle.
Twenty-four hours after he collided with the San Antonio Spurs' Brent Barry with Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on the line, the Lakers' Derek Fisher was called for a foul.
"With the benefit of instant replay, it appears a foul call should have been made," said a statement by NBA spokesman Tim Frank.
With the Spurs trailing by two, Barry, a 95% free-throw shooter in the regular season, would have been given a two-shot foul, giving the Spurs a shot at overtime in a game in which they never led.
Unfortunately for San Antonio, the admission does nothing more than set the record straight. The result will not change, the Spurs still trailing 3-1 in the best-of-seven series after walking off the AT&T Center court Tuesday night 93-91 losers.
Game 5 is tonight at Staples Center.
With just over two seconds to play, Barry had the ball and the game in his hands just beyond the three-point arc when he suddenly found Fisher in his face. Fisher made an ill-timed leap to block the potential game-winning shot, coming down on Barry's left side as the Spurs guard tried to step around Fisher for a better angle.
A hush settled over the crowd, the fans straining for the sound of a whistle that never came. Barry put up an awkward shot that bounced harmlessly to the right of the hoop, the next sound being a collective sigh by the Lakers.
Before the statement by the NBA late Wednesday, league spokesman Brian McIntyre said referees Joey Crawford, Joe Forte and Mark Wunderlich may have been following a league guideline in failing to make a call.
"There is an explanation in the rule book," said McIntyre, "that there are times during games when the degree of certainty necessary to determine a foul involving physical contact is higher. That comes during impact time when the intensity has risen, especially at the end of a game. In other words, if you're going to call something then, be certain."
Gregg Popovich, concluding his 12th season as the Spurs' head coach, has never heard of such an advisory in all his years of dealing with referees.
"It's a very strange thing," said Popovich, also before the league's statement. "If you talk to an official, the official will tell you that the game is called at the end of the game exactly like it is during the meat of the game. That's their story and they're going to stand by it. In reality, personally, I don't think that's true and I can give a thousand examples that things are called differently down the stretch where I think most referees feel -- and I agree with them -- that things need to be more definitive before you're going to make a call. A referee is going to be hesitant to make a call that could decide a game at the end unless it's really either gross or obvious. So, that's why I said, if I was an official, I would not have called that a foul at the end of the game."
Former Lakers guard Norm Nixon, now a television analyst, feels it was up to Barry to force a referee to blow his whistle.
"Refs don't like to make that kind of call to decide a game," Nixon said, "unless it's a hard, hard foul. As it was, at a time like that in a playoff game, I thought it was a good non-call."
Instead of trying to avoid Fisher, Nixon said, Barry should have turned into him, and attempted the shot.
"If he had gone on with the continuation of the play," Nixon said, "it would have been an obvious foul and it would have been called. The problem was, he dribbled away and then took a shot. If you can create contact, you are going to get the call."
Flopping backward to the floor after Fisher banged into him would have been an effective selling point as well.
"When I played and had the ball in a situation like that," Nixon said, "I felt the defender was more afraid of me then I was of him. He was not going to foul me and put me on line. So I felt confident I could get my shot."
For Popovich, it's a dead issue, overshadowed by the specter of elimination.
"It's a tough loss. . . . The players and the coaches are human," he said. "We have to focus [on the] next game in hopes that we can win that game and survive. . . . If you don't let it go, you can't focus on the task at hand."
Times staff writer Jonathan Abrams contributed to this report.