Derek Fisher can handle the criticism


He knew it before you did, before you began to question the Lakers’ obvious weakness, before you hit the message boards with mounting criticism of Derek Fisher.

“I knew it before the season began,” Fisher says, then mentioning Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. “Where else is anyone going to point?”

He’s not scoring like he has, as the criticism goes, little help in reserve behind him, and the Lakers are vulnerable at point guard as the playoffs loom.

He’s not playing the kind of defense a team of this caliber deserves, a free agent at the end of the season and maybe on his way out if the Lakers look to upgrade.

“I would say, ‘concerned,’ ” Fisher says about his chances of returning to the Lakers next season. “I know this business -- concern from that point, yes.

“Concern because I can’t play basketball or do certain things anymore, no. I still think I have a lot of basketball left in me.”

If all that mattered was being a good guy and a class act, Fisher would be with the Lakers for years, but he knows his shots per game are down, his points per game are down and critics are going to carp, “he’s getting worse,” as he puts it.

But he maintains it’s because of the role he’s asked to play on a team with so many other great scoring options, a role that he acknowledges might cost him individually with free agency looming, but so be it.

“I definitely can’t say I’m happy with what I’m doing and this is all I want to do forever, but I’m willing to do it because this is what this team needs me to do,” he says. “If the most experienced, co-captain, battle-tested and all the other adjectives you want to throw in can’t check himself and make sacrifices -- then forget about everyone else.

“I’m not having as much fun as I would like to have maybe spreading my wings [on offense], but team balance is very delicate and so you have to manufacture fun. I’ve learned how to get enjoyment out of one-for-five shooting and a win in San Antonio. I focus on the positive things that happen, and not the other things that don’t.”

By way of example, the quintessential team player who has learned to adapt and adjust since his AAU days as a 10-year-old kid, is still thrilled two days later over breakfast in Oklahoma City with the win in San Antonio, a game in which he was his very worst at times.

“Terrible first half,” he recalls, San Antonio’s point guard scoring 20, while Fisher goes scoreless. “No points and three fouls. The whole halftime I’m just standing there in the locker room. I don’t sit down in my chair because I’ve been sitting down the whole first half with three fouls.

“I’m just standing there listening to Phil [Jackson] talk, ready to get back on the court, knowing we’re seven down and we’ve got to be ready to start the third quarter. I can’t wait.

“Right away Kobe penetrates, jumps in the air and with no hesitation kicks the ball to me for a three-pointer. He’s got that kind of confidence in me. I take my time, the defense kind of recovers, but it doesn’t matter. I just knock it down, and I’m telling everyone, ‘Let’s keep it up.’ ”

The Lakers do, Fisher’s only points in the game the three-pointer, finishing with that one-for-five effort, but he’s talking about what a great game it was for the Lakers, “something clicking” in the second half.

He knows some people came away from that game talking about George Hill’s first half, scoring 20 against Fisher, although Fisher wasn’t always the player assigned to stop him.

“I’m OK with that; if I wasn’t, I would be trying to score more at the other end of the court to compensate.

“I hear people still thinking Phil doesn’t know what he’s doing coaching, he can only win with star players and all that, and he’s the most successful coach in pro sports. If he’s going to be questioned, no sense wasting my time worrying about being questioned.”

But he also knows the business of basketball as president of the players association. And Trevor Ariza is no longer here, in part just business, because the Lakers thought they could upgrade with Artest.

It’s “all or nothing” for the Lakers, he says, winning championships everything, and he was here earlier when they didn’t win. He began the next season on the bench behind Gary Payton, “and so I know what happens when we don’t win a championship,” he says.

“I definitely feel winning a championship increases the probability of me being back. I know there’s still going to be pressure to upgrade where they can, and they can’t get any better than Kobe or Pau, and Ron is arguably one of the three to five greatest defensive players to ever play in the game.

“They’re going to start running out of places to get better, so it always comes to me.”

He maintains he’s better on defense than he has been the past two years, and while critics might take exception, he points to the improvement of Bynum and addition of Artest behind him, as well as off-season work to improve his own lateral quickness.

Is he fooling himself?

“I know athletes are the last to know,” says Fisher, 36 when next season starts, “but I don’t think I’ve slowed down.”

Maybe he was never very fast to start, Jackson saying Fisher at times looks like he’s a step behind, packing a body that makes him more fullback than halfback, “but he gets the job done.”

He didn’t a year ago against Houston’s Aaron Brooks, the NBA’s version of Darren Sproles, Jackson joking that Fisher’s suspension for a game helped the Lakers.

Fisher met Brooks again Saturday night, the old man who is supposedly the Lakers’ weak link, making five of seven, scoring 13 first-half points and leading the Lakers to a 17-point advantage.

“Whatever it takes,” Fisher says, so far good enough for four rings, and still a work in progress.