Posted May 9 2010 1:31AM
SALT LAKE CITY -- They were on opposite ends of the floor Saturday morning, hours before the seats would fill with fans booing their every move.
Lakers forward Ron Artest on one side hoisting shots from beyond the 3-point line and point guard Derek Fisher doing the same on the other end.
Who knew they'd play such pivotal roles hours later, helping deliver the Lakers a critical win in Game 3 of this Western Conference semifinal, a thrilling 111-110 win that wasn't secure until the final buzzer, when a shot rolled off the same rim that Fisher was working on in the morning.
Fisher, he proclaimed, was one of the "best closers in the business."
"We've got three or four closers on this team," Artest said hours before he and Fisher would combine for 40 points, including seven of the Lakers' 13 makes from beyond the 3-point line, in playoff atmosphere at EnergySolutions Arena as thick as anything Artest said he'd ever seen. "D. Fish is one of the best."
As much as this night was about Artest redeeming himself, about Kobe Bryant strangling the air out of the building and the Lakers proving that those two wins at the Staples Center weren't just a product of home court advantage and about the Lakers proving that they had the resolve to win a slugfest without 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum landing the heaviest blows, this night was about Fisher.
And he saved his best for the right moment for the Lakers, who can finish this series with another win here in Game 4 Monday night.
It was Fisher's 3-pointer with 28.6 seconds to play that put the Lakers ahead to stay, sealing the win and silencing the fans that booed him and serenaded him with those "Fisher sucks" chants from start to finish for once being one of their own and then packing up and going back to Los Angeles unexpectedly.
It was his perfectly timed foul on Deron Williams with 6.1 seconds left sent the Jazz All-Star to the line for two free throws that could bring the Jazz to within a point in the final seconds, as opposed to the three throws Williams could have made to tie the game had Fisher had grabbed him a split second later.
It was Fisher's decision to challenge Williams on both ends that made the difference. It was the two charges he drew early to send Williams to the bench and it was the big shots he stepped into without hesitation, making sure the Jazz paid for underestimating the "old man" many had written off after Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook had his way with Fisher in the Lakers' first round win over the Thunder. Bryant had to take over defensive responsibilities against Westbrook to make sure the Lakers survived.
But it was Fisher that came to rescue on this night, time after time. And the Lakers needed all 20 of his points, all five of his fouls, the three assists and the two rebounds he provided. They needed the toughness he brings, the "tenacity" that Lakers coach Phil Jackson said was a factor for his team.
"Fish is being Fish," said Bryant, who matched Fisher's late-game heroics with a 3-pointer of his own that tied the game at 106-106 with 66 seconds to play. "What more can you say? This is something he's done his whole career."
And that includes the two years he spent with the Jazz mentoring Williams, two years Jazz coach Jerry Sloan still appreciates, when Fisher was the veteran presence and the voice of reason in a locker room that lacked those qualities.
"He's done this before," Sloan said. "He's a tough guy. He played for us and was a great competitor and it was a big loss for our team when he left, but that's life."
Fisher spent 2006-07 season here, doing whatever he could to help Sloan rebuild the Jazz into the playoff team the once were have become since then.
His departure at the end of that season, however, remains a sore spot for many of the locals, including the thousands that let him hear it Saturday night.
Fisher's then 10-month old daughter, Tatum, was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a cancerous tumor in her left eye, during the playoffs. The Jazz released him from the his contract so he could find a team in a city where his young daughter could receive specialized treatment.
He had options in New York, Cleveland and Los Angeles. And less than three weeks after becoming a free agent he signed with the Lakers, the team that drafted him 14 years ago, the same year they acquired Bryant in a draft night trade.
His decision created some ill will among Jazz faithful that don't believe neither Fisher nor his wife were ever keen on him playing and the family living here.
Sloan said he doesn't go around taking the pulse of the fans to find out how they feel about Fisher's motives for moving on. "From a coaching standpoint he was a wonderful guy to coach," Sloan said, "a real professional. That was a business decision and at the end of the day, we work under those parameters and it's part of the job. I wished him well when he left, and still do, expect for when he plays against us."
Three years is a long time to carry a grudge, even for NBA fans. So while Fisher admitted that he heard the fans cursing him and chanting his name for all the wrong reasons -- and he even gestured for them to keep it coming during a trip to the bench in the first half for a timeout.
"I'm not mad, and this is probably not the best venue to discuss all those things, but sometimes it's just interesting," Fisher said from his locker stall long after those screaming fans had left the building. "I would venture to bet that if I were a construction worker, a librarian or a police officer and I made a decision to transfer to another city or another department to just do what was best for my family, I would be commended rather than the way it's taken by some people.
"But because it's sports, there's just so much passion and emotion and involved in what's going on. And it doesn't help that every year we're playing this team 12 to 15 times a season and we've come out on the top end of it, and it seems like I'm the reason why. If I were a bettering man I'd think No. 24 [Bryant], No. 16 [Gasol] and some other guys have a lot more to do with it than what my contributions are."
But not this time.
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