LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant clutched the MVP trophy with his left hand and Derek Fisher with his right, and for one small moment, with the howls of nearly 19,000 fans falling on them, they locked eyes. Bryant isn’t one to often say thank you. Those who have played with him or worked for him will tell you as much. But this time he didn’t need to.
His grin said enough. Without Fisher, there likely wouldn’t have been an MVP trophy. Without Fisher, these Los Angeles Lakers likely wouldn’t have even been playing Wednesday evening. They certainly wouldn’t have won without him. Not with him scoring 22 points and throwing in one last three-point dagger to ice their 120-110 victory over the Utah Jazz.
The Lakers have now won all six of their playoff games. Two more wins and they’re in the Western Conference finals. For that, they obviously owe Bryant. They also owe his old teammate. The Jazz know this better than anyone. A year ago Fisher helped take them to the conference finals.
Fisher returns to Salt Lake City on Friday, and he’s not expecting the same reception he received last May 9. Then, after jetting in from New York where his 10-month-old daughter had undergone treatment for eye cancer, Fisher walked onto the court at EnergySolutions Arena in the third quarter to a standing ovation. He soon brought the crowd to its feet again, delivering the most memorable moment of the Jazz’ unexpected playoff run, making a late three-pointer in overtime to save a victory against the Golden State Warriors.
And then, in less than two months, Fisher…was gone. He asked Utah to release him from his contract so he could play in a city that offered more up-to-date medical care for his daughter’s rare disease and the request was granted. His departure came with some obvious benefits for the Jazz: It freed up minutes for Ronnie Brewer to grow in the team’s backcourt and erased the remaining $20.5 million of Fisher’s contract off the franchise’s books, a savings that then helped Utah trade for sharpshooter Kyle Korver.
Had Fisher signed with anyone other than the Lakers, the Jazz might still be sending him thank-you notes for his lone season of service. But when he quickly reached agreement to return to his former team? L.A. conspiracy whispers breezed through some corners of the league. To this day, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan won’t talk much about Fisher’s exit. Before the start of this series, he called Fisher and Pau Gasol “gifts” to the Lakers. “The organization made a decision and we supported it,” Sloan said curtly.
Jazz fans showered Fisher with enough boos to unnerve during his return to Utah. He received a warmer response during his second trip back, and isn’t fretting about what will happen Friday. He’s a Laker now and the crowd at EnergySolutions Arena, the most vocal in the league, will already be suitably lathered from seeing its team down 0-2.
“I don’t know if you’ll be able to hear anybody that has anything negative to say,” Fisher joked. “It’s going to be that loud and that intense.”
What’s certain is this: The disease Fisher’s daughter has is real and she’s more easily treated here than Utah. This much is also true: Fisher gave up about $6.5 million by leaving Utah.
As it turned out, Bryant needed Fisher more than Fisher needed him. Fisher was still in the playoffs a year ago when Bryant went into his postseason meltdown. Informed his old teammate had criticized Lakers management for not doing enough to build a contending roster around him, Fisher shook his head and walked off. He had already quit the circus and it certainly seemed like he didn’t want to go back.
But Fisher also soon noticed something else about these Lakers. They resembled his Jazz. They were young, versatile and talented. They had a successful, experienced coach. They also needed a point guard, preferably a veteran who could help temper Bryant’s domineering personality. They needed someone Bryant believed in.
Who better than Fisher? He and Bryant came to the Lakers as rookies in 1996. They won three championships together. During all those Kobe-hates-Shaq, Shaq-hates-Kobe tiffs, it was Fisher who often sounded the voice of reason.
“He has so much trust in Fish,” Lakers forward Luke Walton said of Bryant. “They’ve been through a lot of wars.”
Fisher, however, didn’t know these Lakers. Bryant gave him a rundown on the roster during training camp. Potential wasn’t a concern. Even Bryant knew his young teammates had talent. “The question,” Fisher said, “was more so, Are we going to have a team full of guys who are going to make the commitment you have to make over the course of a full season to be good, to treat yourself right, to train properly, to take your job seriously?’”
Fisher isn’t the most vocal of leaders, but he still carries a presence in the locker room. Together with Bryant, he helped set an example for his teammates. “You can’t ever question a man who’s done what he’s done,” Walton said, “and then comes out and still puts it on the line every day in practice.”
Lakers coach Phil Jackson called Fisher a “solid fixture,” and it was easy to see why on Wednesday. He helped limit his former backcourt mate, Deron Williams, to three points in the first half and made three more steals, giving him a two-game total of nine. One season with the Jazz seems to have taught Fisher exactly where his old teammates want to go. When Utah went to a zone in the first quarter, he immediately set up in the corner and hit back-to-back three-pointers. The second pushed the Lakers’ lead to 13. They never looked back.
The Jazz can cite a handful of reasons for why they’re headed home down two games. One is Bryant. Another is the Incredible Shrinking Carlos Boozer. The inexperience of Utah’s backcourt, Sloan said, is yet another.
The Jazz made one final push at the Lakers Wednesday, closing within five midway through the final quarter. Sasha Vujacic hit a long jumper. The next time down the floor, the ball swung to Fisher. Open from 24 feet above the key, he set his feet and fired. The shot was never in doubt.
“Derek Fisher is a champion,” Lamar Odom said. “As his teammate, we’re so spoiled because he’s so clutch.”
Fisher and Bryant can smell another title. Bryant held his trophy aloft for the fans Wednesday evening then grabbed a microphone and vowed, “We’re going to play until June.” Some 15 minutes earlier, Bryant had told his teammates in the locker room that he wanted this game, he wanted this win.
Once again, Fisher helped him deliver.