Thursday, June 11, 2009
Derek Fisher Comes Through For Lakers Again
Derek Fisher has, here in the latter stages of his career, come to be admired as a sort of basketball warhorse. But he was not always so esteemed. Near the end of his first stint with the Lakers, Fisher earned a reputation as a liability for his lack of success defending quick point guards. He had a scorching run during the 2001 playoffs, but by the time the Lakers completed their three-peat the following season, the feeling was that the Lakers were winning in spite of their point guard. When the Lakers failed to win a fourth consecutive title the following season, management looked to improve their resistance at the position. That summer, they added future Hall-of-Famer and defensive genius Gary Payton in an attempt to solve the issue. Fisher was moved to the bench, a sort of cold demotion for a man who had been a starter on two championship teams. And yet, it was Fisher who made the most notable play of that season, authoring one of the most famous shots in NBA history (I believe you know which one I am referring to).
The L.A. dynasty would be dismantled following a shocking upset at the hands of the Pistons in the Finals that June, and Fish would join in on the great exodus, fleeing via free agency. But after three seasons away from the nest he would return, this time not as a handicap but as a plus: a cool-headed, steady handed veteran leader who would help bridge the gap between long-time back-court mate Kobe Bryant and his young, embattled supporting cast.
Indeed, Fisher's stable play and maturity was a major upgrade over the flighty Smush Parker, and the Lakers made the Finals last season thanks in part to Fish's positive calming influence both on and off the court. He could've retired last summer, with everyone's respect and his impact appreciated by Lakers Nation. He had earned it. Of course with that being said, when he struggled down the stretch this year his head was once again called for. His poor play wasn't going to negatively affect his reputation but it was hurting his team. Loyalty is a great notion but it doesn't help win ballgames. It seemed to be the only thing that was allowing him to keep his job, though. Fisher had always done two things well: make threes and take charges. Now he wasn't doing much of either, only he was still playing 30 minutes a night. He was playing basketball whilst sporting dentures and needing the aid of a cane and it was time to hand the reigns to the young guys, Farmar and Brown.
Then it happened. The real reason Phil Jackson stuck with him, I suppose. Game 4, NBA Finals, Orlando leads L.A. by three with eleven seconds left. Out of the timeout Ariza inbounds to Kobe, who's doubled and forced to give it back to Ariza, who then throws it to Fisher. Fish dribbles the ball calmly into the frontcourt. Will the Magic foul? They never do. Jameer Nelson gives Fish way too much room to breathe, so he casually stops behind the three-point line, squares up, and tickles the net for the last basket of regulation. In overtime, Kobe has been monopolizing the ball to an extreme fault, but now there's 30-some seconds left and he's doubled in the post by Pietrus and Nelson and has no choice but to pass. And Fisher is wide open behind the arc, straight away. In the very first game of the regular season last year, Bryant found him for a game-tying jumper in the fourth quarter to cap off a rally versus the Rockets. The Lakers would lose the game but the outcome was besides the point: Kobe may not have trusted the rest of his teammates, but he did trust Fisher, and he trusted him in big moments, and that was evident immediately upon his return.
Thursday night, Kobe gave it up to Fisher again, and the rest is history. The Lakers won, despite being on the bad end of one of the most lopsided officiated games in Finals history. Not just the 37-20 disparity overall, but the fact that Orlando shot 17 free throws to the Lakers ZERO in the fourth quarter. 17 to ZERO? Really? How can that be? I don't know how the Lakers pulled it out but they did, and Fisher was the hero (along with Ariza), as he cemented his status as one of the best clutch shooting role players of his generation. It speaks volumes of the old guy, and for the experience and mental fortitude that is so valued in him, and it seems only right that the Lakers are now only a game away from a fourth title this decade and Derek Fisher is right in the middle of it.