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The Fish that saved L.A. and Kobe

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo Sports

ORLANDO, Fla. – They used to come to the brink of blows in empty gymnasiums as young Lakers, Derek Fisher(notes) and Kobe Bryant(notes) refusing to back down. When older teammates skipped road trip practices to rest tired legs, these two dragged themselves to the gym and played 94-foot basketball blood wars. Bryant has lots of associates, but few friends.

Well, Kobe Bryant owes Fisher now. He owes him something fierce.

Back from the old days, back with a vengeance.

Fisher was the sweetest of salvation for Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. He saved Bryant with a 3-pointer to send Game 4 into overtime, and saved Bryant with another 3-pointer with 31 seconds left in OT that undid a tie and ultimately delivered a 99-91 victory Thursday night.

This was Fisher’s forever Laker moment, two arching shots that found a pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. He pushed L.A. to the brink of the NBA championship, pushed his Laker legacy to legend. Now, the Lakers lead 3-1 in these NBA Finals and Bryant is on the cusp of winning without Shaquille O’Neal(notes).

When L.A. finally clinches, here’s one thing they’ll have to say: Bryant still hasn’t won one without Fisher.

For that, Bryant will be proud. Fisher has unparalleled credibility with Kobe. He’s his balance, his intellectual equal, a bond born of Lakers history and histrionics. No one else on these Lakers can tell Kobe to go bleep himself, and still be his confidant, his conscience. As it turned out, Fisher became something else on Thursday night: Kobe’s championship redemption.

“None of us can just expect that Kobe is going to save us,” Fisher said.

Two years ago, when Bryant was losing his mind in the summer of discontent, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak brought Fisher back to be a conciliatory presence. The championship dynasty of the early decade had been disbanded, but Bryant needed Fisher to keep him balanced, keep him honest. And when he needed him the most, Fisher didn’t let him down.

The Lakers shouldn't have had a chance to steal Game 4, and steal this series. Never. The Lakers didn’t go to the free-throw line in the fourth quarter, and Bryant missed 21 of 31 shots and everything but Fisher’s survival instincts seemed to conspire.

Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy should’ve fouled the Lakers with a 3-point lead on that final possession in regulation, but let Bryant pass out of a double team. Jameer Nelson(notes) let Fisher have too much space and it didn’t matter that he had missed five straight 3-pointers. Pau Gasol(notes) kept firing passes out of double teams, and Fisher kept missing.

In a late huddle, he turned to Gasol and vowed, “I’m not going to miss those shots anymore.”

So that relentless little lefty uncoiled for the two biggest shots of a wild Game 4, and suddenly the Lakers have control of the series. The Magic let the Lakers hang around, and hang around and it was inevitable that Orlando paid with a pound of flesh.

“I think those shots at the end of game are actually easier for him than the other ones,” Bryant said.

Fisher is 34 years old and there’s just something to his DNA that makes those shots possible. Maybe a different coach wouldn’t have stayed with Fisher. He hasn’t played great this season. His shooting is down, his feet on defense never so slow. Jackson needed him on the floor, especially in these Finals. Sometimes, it’s hard for the Lakers to stand up to Bryant. Fisher never flinches, and there isn’t a Laker that Jackson can trust so implicitly on the issue of dealing with Kobe’s bouts of temporary insanity.

“He’s not afraid to go away from Kobe when sometimes Kobe is asking for the ball and [Fisher] knows better,” Jackson said. “I need a guard like him to do that.”

When Jackson took the Lakers job in 2000, there was a sense that Fisher didn’t fit the mold of a Jackson guard. He was small, but he wasn’t that athletic. He wasn’t a great playmaker, not a great shooter.

“He’s persistent," Jackson said. “Dogged.”

There’s something to it. Robert Horry(notes) had that ability. Steve Kerr, too. Right guys, right place, right side of history. You get moments as a complementary player on championship contenders. Michael Jordan passes you the ball with an NBA Finals game on the line, and what do you do with the shot? Well, there was Kobe Bryant passing Fisher with the ball in the final seconds of regulation. Whatever had happened on Thursday night, whatever shots had missed, Fisher would be on the floor.

“He’s willing to stick with certain people that he believes can help get the job done and it’s not always about statistically what is this guy doing,” Fisher said.

When he made the shot with 4.6 seconds left in the fourth, there was no smile out of him. No reaction. Why? He knew his teammates were watching, and knew they read into his reaction. The game wasn’t over, nor the series. When they marched into a wildly celebratory locker room, Fisher started screaming about the 2000 NBA Finals, when they had a 3-1 lead and let Indiana destroy them in Game 5.

Most of these Lakers were just teenagers, but Kobe was here. So was Phil Jackson. All this institutional knowledge can be a roadmap on these jagged journeys to championship seasons. Yet, there comes these telltale games in June when Bryant is a lost cause and someone has to be a hero. All those years ago, these two had threatened fistfights when they were the two Lakers made to practice, and they would just go all day together, all out.

“From that point forward I just gained so much respect for him because of his competiveness, and his ability to hit big shots,” Bryant said.

Back from the old days, back with a vengeance. Yes, Fisher made his way back to L.A., back to Kobe’s side and it kept him sane when he threatened to lose his mind. Now, Kobe Bryant will get his title without Shaq, and he sure owes Derek Fisher.