With their season on the brink, and a very winnable game there for the taking, the Los Angeles Lakers were in a bind. They were managing not to lose, not playing to win.
They were tight and were nowhere near executing their famous triangle offense. After being up by as many as 17 early in the game, the Lakers looked poise for a collapse proportionate to the one they suffered in Game 4 of the Finals two years ago.
In their hour of need, where could they turn? To their superstar Kobe Bryant? Seems logical enough, only Bryant was in the midst of one of the more selfish and inefficient games he’s had in the last three postseasons. No doubt the Celtics defense had a great deal to do with that, as did the Lakers exasperating lack of movement within their offense, but the fact remained that Bryant was off.
How about Pau Gasol? The All-NBA forward had had a quietly effective game offensively, despite allowing Kevin Garnett to own him on defense. Perhaps Gasol should have been the answer, but he mostly spent the fourth quarter letting himself be pushed off the block by backup Glenn Davis.
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In that moment, with their lead cut to one, Los Angeles looked to a familiar face to carry the day.
There are certain players you want in a foxhole with you. They are the players whose sense of the moment, and whose confidence and conviction in said moment, carries them to a level of achievement beyond what their level of talent should allow.
Derek Fisher is exactly that type of player.
It sounds unoriginal, trite even, to claim that his character and leadership are what allowed him to hit four of the Lakers next five baskets, but it also is probably true. His skills have diminished noticeably, and Lakers fans repeatedly have wondered aloud whether he ‘still had it’. But even with old legs, he delivers in gut-check time. For evidence, refer to his potential series-shifting “and-one” over three Celtics with just over 40 seconds to play.
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He has never been considered more than a role player, with just cause considering his career point per game average is just 9.0 and his career PER of 12.3 puts him below the league average. But as we should all know by this stage, stats do not tell the whole story.
Coaches talk a lot about “11am players”, guys who can make shots from anywhere on the floor in morning shoot-around but who disappear when the lights are on. Rising to the occasion is a skill not every player has while others have it in spades.
That ability to rise to the occasion characterizes how Robert Horry was more valuable in his prime than an all-world talent that shrink in the moment (like, say, Vince Carter).
Of course, the hope is to have a star talent who also possesses that indefinable ability of “clutchness”. Unfortunately, however, there are only so many Kobe Bryants and Carmelo Anthonys in this world. Often the task falls to the James Poseys or Sam Cassells to play big in the game’s biggest moments.
Fisher is no different. Whether it is his infamous “Point-Four Shot” from 2004 or his cross-country journey to Utah in 2006, he has long been a player who defined moments instead of being defined by them.
He spent most of last year’s playoffs as a punchline whilst he was being abused by younger, faster, more dynamic point guards. His response? Hitting a game-tying three with 4.6 seconds left in Game 4 of last year’s Finals to send the game into overtime, and then a tie-breaking three with just over 30 second remaining in overtime secure a 3-1 series lead.
He has never been (and will certainly never be) an All-Star. He is highly unlikely to make the Hall of Fame. Yet his name will live on for as long as there is an NBA.
Not in the sense that his jersey will hang in the rafters of the Staple Center, but insofar as NBA diehards will talk about where they were when they saw the “Point-Four Shot”, or now where they were watching him save the Lakers season in Game 3.
In that way Fisher proves that in the history books of the NBA Playoffs, “when” is often more important than “how many”.