LOS ANGELES – For three playoff series, Derek Fisher has heard about how he’s the weak link in the Lakers’ title defense. There was no way he could keep up with Russell Westbrook’s quickness, hold up against Deron Williams’ size, or stifle Steve Nash’s creativity.
“They say he’s old and slow,” noted philosopher and defensive guru Ron Artest said. “I just don’t see it.”
Nobody else does, either. And no, your eyes have not deceived you. Here are the Lakers, two wins away from a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals – and they’ve gotten here not despite Fisher, but in large part because of him.
“I guess I’m smart enough to know that if we win, it doesn’t really matter,” Fisher said. “I guess for some guys it’s harder to not take things personally and try to be who they aren’t when the goal is really to help your team advance. And when you do that, the individual things kind of mean less. I’ve said it before: I’ve never seen anything on the side of any one of my rings that says anything about points per game, percentages per game, who had the most assists, who had the most steals. It’s just a ring. It has your name on it and the team and the organization and that’s it. That’s pretty much all that matters to me.”
No, Fisher, 35, hasn’t done it all by himself against the murderer’s row of point guards the Lakers are toppling on their way to the Finals. After Westbrook sliced through the Lakers’ defense in victories at Oklahoma City in Games 3 and 4 of the first round, Kobe Bryant raised his hand after a video session and said, “I’ll take him.” Bryant slowed Westbrook down, and the Lakers haven’t lost a game since – eight in a row heading into Game 3 of the conference finals Sunday in Phoenix.
But Fisher didn’t need much help against the Williams, arguably the best point guard in the league, as the Lakers swept past the Jazz. Nash, the gold standard for modern-day point guards – or point guards of any era, really – hasn’t been able to find the kind of space and freedom he’s accustomed to with Fisher digging in and using his underrated combination of strength, quick hands and good old fashioned guile.
“He can guard all the point guards,” TNT analyst Hubie Brown told me. “Fisher, in my opinion, is one of the feistiest defensive point guards that we have in the league. He’s very cerebral. He understands the defensive game plan. You can never fall asleep with the basketball because he’s got quick reflexes and quick reactions, plus he gets a lot of deflections. Then off of his man, OK, he’s one of the best point guards that we have in the league in double-teaming and also playing the passing lane on any type of a ball reversal back to his man.”
(Note to reader: At this point in my conversation with Brown the other day, I prayed that the Lakers’ practice court would open up and swallow me. In 30 seconds, Brown had said more intelligent things about basketball than I’ve ever written. And there was more to come.)
“This guy, you don’t hide this guy,” Brown said. “Also, if you break down his game, if he’s running in transition, you never have to worry about a guy getting a clear layup because he’s going to take a charge. And in this league, that’s very difficult for guys to do no matter what size they are – to take the full contact while people are moving. So to me, he’s the total package.”
In the Lakers’ 124-112 victory over the Suns in Game 2 Wednesday night, Fisher’s numbers didn’t measure up to Nash’s – but his impact on the game far exceeded his counterpart’s. Fisher had seven points on 2-for-8 shooting with five assists, two steals and two turnovers. Nash had 11 points and 15 assists, but shot only 4-for-8 from the field with five turnovers. At key sequences in the game – when the Lakers were building an early lead and then pulling away in the fourth quarter after the Suns had tied it at 90-90 – Fisher wound up on the superior end of the action.
Late in the first quarter, Fisher intercepted a post pass from Nash as the Suns were trying to find their offensive rhythm. Late in the second quarter, Fisher hurt the Suns with his offense – finding Andrew Bynum for a dunk, hitting a corner 3-pointer and making a driving layup to give the Lakers a 65-56 halftime lead. Midway through the fourth, Fisher forced Nash into consecutive turnovers, the first leading to a corner 3-pointer by Jordan Farmar on which Nash failed to close out defensively. In 67 seconds, the Lakers stretched a six-point lead to 11 and the rout was on.
“Steve can hurt you without scoring, whereas some of the other guys at the point guard position need to score for their team to win,” Fisher said. “Overall it’s exactly the same. You want to limit penetration. You want to keep the guy in front of you. You want to make him shoot the ball over the top instead of letting him get to the rim and make plays for himself or other people. You want to make him work as hard as possible. You’re not going to stop him, but you can’t allow him to do whatever he wants to do out there. And sometimes that means sacrificing yourself, your game, your body and that means picking up some fouls to do it. Just do what it takes.”
Next up, presumably, will be the Celtics' Rajon Rondo, who has been the single most influential point guard in the postseason -- better than Williams, Nash, Jason Kidd, all of them. Once again, it will seem to be an impossible task for Fisher to hold up against Rondo's length, speed, quickness and guile. And once again, Fisher will have to find a way.
That’s what he does: whatever it takes, and more than everybody expects.