BOSTON — With the Celtics trailing 84-80 and time ticking away in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the C's saw their hopes of a comeback win and a 2-1 series lead dashed by a coast-to-coast drive from a forgotten 35-year-old veteran named Derek Fisher.
The weak link in the Lakers' starting five through two games of these Finals — a guy these Celtics had exploited and relentlessly attacked back in Los Angeles — Fisher went from goat to hero back in Boston.
With 53 seconds left in Game 3, Fisher corralled a defensive rebound off of a missed Ray Allen jumper, broke into a full sprint from one basket to the other, and finished at the rim with a driving layup and a foul from Glen Davis. Then he made the free throw.
From 84-80 to 87-80. From crunch time to final buzzer.
"Initially, I was really just trying to advance the ball and get it past halfcourt before the eight-second count," Fisher said. "I saw [Kevin Garnett] coming up, and the angle that he took, I knew he could get around him without stepping on the left sideline. And once I broke through him, I saw that they didn't have anybody back at the basket. So I just took the direct line."
The Lakers had seen Fisher, a 14-year veteran, make big plays before. But this one was really special, and he could see it in the reactions of his teammates — Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Kobe Bryant. The old man had come through when it mattered most, and his teammates couldn't have been happier for him.
"To see Pau's reaction, and my teammates' reactions, that's why those moments feel so good to me," Fisher said. "Hitting the floor didn't feel that good, to be honest, but Pau's reaction, and Lamar and Kobe, and what the guys were saying to me, that's why those things feel so good."
It was a redemption game for Fisher, who had been maligned all year long as too old, too slow, too ineffective to be the point guard of a championship team. He's now leading the way for a team that's two wins away.
"He's really a terrific leader," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We know that. As a basketball player, and in our locker room. His leadership on the court is just a solid presence out there, just trying to get things operating in our offense, and a lot of times he's got to direct things from an off-ball position. … When he's got an opportunity to hit a key shot, it seems like he's always there and ready."
It's been rare for Fisher to receive accolades following a Lakers win this season. When they've lost, he's been an easy scapegoat; when they've won, the credit has naturally gravitated toward Bryant, Gasol or Odom. But especially in big games like this one, the Lakers themselves understand the value of having Fisher around.
"I went through years where I didn't have him," Bryant said. "I had point guards who were nowhere near his caliber in leadership, in shot-making ability, in toughness. I mean, it changes things drastically for me personally.
"He's our vocal leader," he added. "He's the heart and soul of this team. Simple as that."
And he loves rising to the occasion in big games like this one.
"You know, it's tough to put into words," he said. "I got a little bit emotional in my postgame interview right after the game, just because, you know, I love what I do, and I love helping my team win. You know, even when things maybe aren't going the way I'd like them to go, for reasons I can control and some I can't, I still pretty much keep my mouth shut and just keep doing my job, and remain faithful that things will come around when they need to.
"And so to come through again tonight for this team, 14 years in, after so many great moments, it's always quite surreal and quite humbling to experience it again and do it again. It's like being a kid, man — you just never get tired of that candy. Tonight feels very good."