"We have this direct-line principle -- no one steps up, you keep going -- and he saw the opening and made a very bold play,'' said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "It was one-on-four. It was imperative that it goes in for us to win.''
It scooped in high off the glass and they won 91-84 to reclaim home-court advantage in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday. This was another big shot in a lifetime of big moments, and yet it was different from the others Fisher has made. Most have been three-pointers in which he appeared like a sniper, stepping theatrically from behind a pillar to quickly turn a bad result to good. On those dozens of other nights he was attacked by defenders who arrived too late. But this time he did the attacking. The direct-line principle.
"Won the game for them,'' said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "Derek Fisher was the difference in the game. We lost our composure a little bit down the stretch -- a four-point game, all you need is a stop. We let Derek Fisher dribble the ball all the way up the court, unattended, get a three-point play. If you get a stop there, we had plenty of time. But that's where we [need] the mental toughness. We've got to hang in there. It's not going to be an easy game, none of them are going to be, and that's what we have to do.''
Isn't that what Fisher has done? He was drafted No. 24 by the Lakers in 1996 as a 6-foot-1 senior guard from Arkansas-Little Rock, 11 picks behind Kobe Bryant. No one envisioned the big shots that would culminate his four championships with Los Angeles, and that they would keep coming two months from his 36th birthday.
"He's really the only one I listen to,'' said Bryant. "Everybody else is a bunch of young kids. Derek and I came in the league together. We spent long nights together as rookies, battling each other, playing full-court one-on-one games. We've been through it, so he can come to me and say, 'Kobe, you're [bleeping] up.' We owe that to each other.''
Now comes along this game to fill in the narrative of a 14-year career that hasn't only been about parades and buzzer-beating threes replayed from a dozen different angles. Fisher could not have survived and thrived as a one-dimensional shooter. He has been a leader in private, like a chief of staff who plays to Bryant's strengths and softens his weaknesses. He has learned how to soften the impact of Bryant's glare upon his teammates, to bring perspective to his endless demands and help blend the Lakers' varied talents into one.
"I went through years where I didn't have him,'' said Bryant of Fisher's three seasons with Golden State and Utah before he returned to the Lakers in 2007. "I had point guards who were nowhere near his caliber in leadership and shot-making ability and toughness. It changes things drastically for me personally. I don't have as much responsibility as I had when he wasn't here. He's the heart and soul of this team.''
Which is quite the genuflection from someone who is trying to become one of the greatest players in the history of the game. Fisher put that leadership to work after the Lakers' disheartening Game 2 loss at home Sunday in which he was personally torched by 32 points from Ray Allen.
"I have people that I'm close to that give me things to read throughout the season, and in particular in the playoffs and the postseason,'' said Fisher by way of explaining the means to this happy Game 3 ending. "I was reading a book that talked about companies and things they try to do to keep everybody focused on what the goal is, and I've recently been reading a lot about trust. So what we talked about was trusting each other -- trusting the triangle offense, trusting our coaches, trusting that if you get into foul trouble that the guy next to you or behind you can come in and get the job done.
"And that there's nothing to fear. Just go out there and give everything you have and trust that will be enough.''
Tuesday's game created chapters lurid with positive reinforcement. A 32-8 Lakers run was launched in the first quarter to give them a 17-point lead early in the second. After that, the lead waned gradually like a story running out of steam. After the third quarter, Fisher could be seen rallying his teammates with an emotional talk that he had every right to make, given the throttling defense he was directing toward Allen. In Game 2, Allen had set a Finals record with eight threes, and two short nights later his 0-for-13 performance from the field came within one missed shot of tying the worst shooting line in any Finals game. Jackson credited Fisher for chasing Allen through screens as well as his teammates for helping to slow Allen, which is another example of how games are won on promises made among teammates.
On this night when the three most explosive stars -- Bryant, Allen and Paul Pierce -- were a combined 15-for-54, the fourth period was won by the oldest player on the floor. Fisher scored 11 in the quarter while fulfilling the direct-line principle: None of his 16 points came from the three-point line. The defensive attention paid to Bryant was exploited by the drives of his complementary friend. Each running banker or pull-up jumper was vital, because this was one of those games in which the visitors fought all-out to sustain their advantage based on a reasonable fear that the home team would grow unstoppable the instant they surged ahead.
Allen's final flat three bounded out hard to Fisher, and let him take it from here.
"At that time, the clock is, I guess, our enemy and our friend,'' he said, as if talking about his own life experiences as well as this game. "Initially I was just trying to advance the ball and get it past half court. I saw [Kevin Garnett] coming up and the angle that he took, I knew I could get around him without stepping on the left sideline -- and once I broke through him, they didn't have anybody at the basket. So I just took the direct line.
"Had they got there and cut me off, I probably would have pulled it out. But I felt that I could get to the basket and get a good shot off before they could get to me.''
Three Celtics converged and buried him with a hard foul for an eventual three-point play, and then his teammates converged in a different way to pull him to his feet. Here is the list of opposing guards who were supposed to bury Fisher round-by-round this postseason: RussellWestbrook, Deron Williams, Steve Nash and now Rajon Rondo, as well as Allen. After this victory put his Lakers back on top, Fisher all but wept on the court, uncharacteristic of a dramatist who is so rarely emotional.
"To come through tonight again for this team, 14 years in, after so many great moments, it's always surreal and humbling to experience it again and do it again,'' he said. "But it's like being a kid: You just never get tired of that candy. Tonight it feels very good, and I'm happy. But my thoughts are going to Thursday already.''
Thursday brings Game 4, which brings the most direct line to another championship. How does the oldest man play with the youngest heart? Fatigue has nothing to do with his answer to that question. At 35, Derek Fisher is conditioned to fight without fear of the end. So he wins.