Fisher’s words lead them to one defining moment
He had swiveled on defense, bricked on offense, the aging point guard scuffling through a long night in this longest of springs.
But in the waning moments of the furious storm that was Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night, Derek Fisher knew he had one thing that his younger teammates didn’t.
Some would call it wisdom. Some would call it experience. Some would forgo any definition and just call it soul.
Whatever it was, Fisher gave it to the Lakers, dug deep through his three championship rings and gave it all, calling them together during a fourth-quarter timeout and shouting above the Pepsi Center madness in words they will remember all spring.
“Derek pulled us all in the huddle and just reminded everybody, this is what it’s about,” said Kobe Bryant. “This is where you’re tested. To be a champion, you’ve got to respond.”
Standing in front of his sagging body, their young hearts listened.
Soon, across the court, up in the arena, throughout the NBA landscape, eventually everyone else heard.
They weren’t just words, they were fuel, sparking his team to blow away the Nuggets by two touchdowns in the final quarter and sprint away with a 103-97 theft that Bryant called a landmark.
“I rank this right up there with some of the biggest road wins we’ve had since I’ve been a Laker,” he said.
Big, because they probably should have lost after trailing throughout the game, including by eight points at the start of the fourth quarter.
Bigger, because the Nuggets had won 16 consecutive games at home.
Huge, because the Nuggets had lost only three of 48 games that they’d led entering the fourth quarter.
Giant, because, let’s face it, the Lakers lose this game, they probably lose the series.
Thus Fisher’s speech, which he didn’t want to repeat to the media, but was forced to because so many of his teammates were marveling about it.
“I told them, this was a moment in time when you can define yourself,” Fisher said. “I told them, this was a moment when you can step into that destiny.”
Fisher said he summed up the speech in a sentence.
“I told them, this is your moment,” he said.
And, man, did they ever grab it, with Bryant unearthing more disbelief and Pau Gasol finding more Pau and Lamar Odom freaking out the Nuggets one more time.
The Lakers turned it up, the Nuggets gagged it up, and in the end, Bryant was doubled over in exhaustion while the Nuggets’ Carmelo Anthony -- three points in the second half -- was doubled over in front of his locker in remorse.
“This is hard,” teammate Nene said from across the room. “This is really hard.”
Do you know what’s hard? It’s hard to imagine that one team could lose two playoff games on the same simple play.
We interrupt this serious narrative to ask a somewhat silly question.
How can the Denver Nuggets advance to the NBA Finals when they can’t even advance the ball inbounds?
It was the play of the night, your jaw probably dropped at home as our jaws were dropping on press row, 37.1 seconds remaining, Nuggets bringing in the ball at midcourt trailing by two.
With Odom doing 6-foot-10 jumping jacks in his face, Kenyon Martin couldn’t find anybody open and called timeout.
Oh good, Denver fans undoubtedly sighed. This time he won’t do anything stupid like they did in Game 1.
You’ll remember, in Game 1, with 30.5 seconds left and the Nuggets trailing by two, Anthony Carter threw a looping inbounds pass that was intercepted by Trevor Ariza and led to a Lakers victory.
This time, because Martin had called timeout, the Nuggets knew what they were doing, right?
Wrong. This time, they were even dumber, with Martin throwing an awful pass for Anthony that was picked off by Ariza, leading to a second victory.
How can this happen twice? Just look at the two constants in the two plays.
First, there is a Ariza, who has had a breakout series with defense that features perhaps the quickest acceleration on the team.
He can sneak up on guys, then pass them when they least expect it, even when everyone in the world is expecting it.
“It was kind of funny,” said the understated Ariza, who left the arena limping with an injured hip and groin.
The second constant is Odom, who guarded the passer both times with a huge hovering presence.
“You’ve got a guy that big, with arms that go forever, jumping in your face and cutting down all the angles, the nerves start building in the passer,” said Luke Walton. “I’ve been trying to throw the ball inbounds before, and it makes it tough.”
Odom left the arena also limping because of a sore lower back, but not sore enough to keep him from flying.
“This is the kind of thing champions have to do,” he said.
After Saturday night, for the first time this postseason, the Lakers were talking like that, like potential champions.
They were marveling over Bryant’s fall-away three-pointer with J.R. Smith in his face, a shot with 1:30 left that gave the Lakers a lead they never lost.
They were waxing over Gasol’s fadeaway jump shots in the face of Nene a few minutes earlier.
But mostly they were talking about Fisher’s speech, the kind that might one day be put on T-shirts and repeated on the corner of 11th and Figueroa, words fit for a parade, his Lakers stepping into their destiny.