Fisher's Return Is a Huge Splash

Phil Jackson had mulled the conversation topic--this team, and why last year's championship softened it, rather than emboldened it, as he might have expected. He did not argue the premise.

"It has to do with chemistry," he said. "That's what winning and losing does. When you win, it strengthens those bonds. This year, we've had some things that have happened that have not strengthened the chemistry of this basketball club."

It is why the final six weeks were so daunting for the Lakers, and why they lacked much in the way of exuberance. In a hyper-competitive Western Conference, the Lakers for five months were purely middle-of-the-pack.

"Everybody on this team feels a little shocked by it, and yet responsible in their own ways for it," Jackson said. "As a result, we're trying to put Band-Aids, quick applications, on these things to make it better as the season goes through. What will do it, and I keep telling the team this, is to build a winning streak, to go through a segment of the season and build a winning streak, particularly on the road, where it has to be done under duress. We haven't been able to do that so far."

Ten days later, on March 13, Derek Fisher stepped off the injured list for a game against the Boston Celtics, six months after surgery. A team conscience was born.

Fisher pushed the Lakers past the Celtics, and an ounce of passion stirred their expressionless title defense.

With Kobe Bryant sick at home, the Lakers allowed themselves to be carried away by Fisher. A point guard who averaged 5.4 points in 290 games, Fisher scored 26 points and had eight assists and six steals. The points and steals were career highs.

"I definitely could not have dreamt this," Fisher said. "I'm just glad to be back out there. I wanted to come out and play hard and help out."

The Lakers were inspired.

"It was an incredible game," Jackson said. "That's a remarkable game. So much for training camp.

"We lacked leadership without him, to be honest."

The Celtics never saw Fisher coming.

"He's the heart and soul of that team, besides Shaq," Milt Palacio said. "He was good. He was really great."

Fisher arrived just as the Lakers lost another guard.

J.R. Rider was suspended by the league for five mid-March games because of his refusal to comply with the NBA's drug after-care program. He believed he should not have been assigned to it.

Rider protested the league's directive that he be tested and report for counseling, the common approach for a first-time offender. Rider insisted that he was not officially an offender, and therefore the league did not have the authority to pursue its testing.

He returned after five games, played five minutes in Washington, then Jackson held him out the next three games. By then, Rider had fallen out of the rotation.

On March 21 in Milwaukee, Bryant crumpled to the court beneath a basket in Milwaukee. His left foot, already sore, gave out again. He would be out all but 11 minutes of the next 10 games, a period of nearly three weeks that many believed turned the Lakers around, along with Bryant.

Bryant was able to consider the offense and his role in it from the bench, where he appeared to gather unusual perspective. He also got past an article in a Chicago newspaper that quoted Jackson as saying Bryant "sabotaged" high school basketball games so he could save them.

Gregg Downer, Bryant's coach at Lower Merion High, defended Bryant a few days later.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "I'm getting tired of the microscopic existence Kobe is leading out there. To attack the integrity of myself and the integrity of my basketball program is not right. I'd like to know who his source is. It shows a lack of professionalism."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World