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Lakers-Celtics Game Three: Fishkrieg!

Fisher02
Fisher02

There's a phrase that gets tossed about a lot in hoops discourse. When scouts or commentators are looking to build up a certain player, they'll often say that he's "not afraid to take the big shot." It's a horribly overused descriptor, which you can confirm with a quick Google search of those words. When I ran it through the search engine, the first three hits involving NBA players applied the phrase to noted clutch performers Rashard LewisChris Duhon and Anthony Roberson. Basically, if you've ever made a crucial bucket in any game at any level, someone somewhere has gone on record with the opinion that a big shot is something you're not afraid to take.

In a world where words actually mean something, that description would be reserved for Derek Fisher and a select few like him. Last night, in the fourth quarter of Lakers' high-wire victory in Game Three, he demonstrated how to play without fear. He stepped into a moment of history and owned it completely. In circumstances bristling with pressure, Fish put his own reputation on the line in a way that, had he failed, would've made him an easy target for his longtime critics (like me). Instead, his crunch-time play broke the Boston Celtics in two.

Rewind to the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter. The Celtics, by then, had chipped a 17-point deficit down to a single point. The Lakers had scored only one point in their previous four possessions. The Boston defense had taken away nearly everything the Lakers were trying to do. Kobe Bryant was being kept out of the paint and reduced to long, challenged jumpers. The Laker bigs were being denied the ball in the post and harassed when they had it. About 17 minutes of play had elapsed since the Lakers had generated any second-chance points. Ron Artest, chastened by his miserable Game Two, was no longer even looking to shoot. Slowly, achingly, the Laker offense was being asphyxiated by some 2008-caliber Boston D.

From that point forward, each team had the ball 16 times, and the Lakers outscored the Celtics 23 to 17. That's 1.44 points per possession scored down the stretch, against a defense that coming into last night's game had limited its playoff opponents to 1.03 points per trip. In those 16 possessions, Fish shot 5 for 7 and scored 11 points, good for a True Shooting mark of 79%. Both in terms of volume (the number of shots Fish was able to find for himself) and efficiency (how well he converted those shots into points), it was a stunning eruption.

Let's say that rather than taking seven shots in nine minutes, Fish had deferred to Kobe and Pau Gasol. Let's say he pulled the ball back out and dished it off to one of the Lakers' go-to scorers. If he'd done so and the Lakers had gone on to lose the game, none of us would be here today complaining that Fish didn't shoot enough. Blame would fall to Kobe or Pau, or the defense for giving up a huge lead. Fish's play would be an afterthought.

My point being, Fish didn't have to assume the offensive burden. He could easily have stepped back from the moment, the spotlight and the world-class shitstorm that would've rained down had the Lakers lost after leading by 17. And what if he'd fired up seven shots and made only two of them? His very future as a Laker would be called into question even more than it already has.

Faced with this decision tree, Fish climbed onto the branch that brought the greatest risk and greatest reward. He eschewed the options that guaranteed blamelessness and instead put his own ass on the line. In doing so, he flipped a giant middle finger at people like me who've been riding him all year long.

Some further notes from a glorious Tuesday night....

Kevin Garnett - played a game I didn't think he had in him. And actually, I don't think he's at all likely to do it again. The situation reminds me of Shaquille O'Neal's performance in Game Four of the 2004 Finals. After looking old and spent in the Lakers' Game Three loss in that series, Shaq dialed back the clock to hang 36 points and 20 rebounds on the Detroit Pistons in a close contest that the Lakers unfortunately dropped. After the game, Phil Jackson - and I've been trying to find the exact quote, with no success - said something like, "It's a shame we wasted Shaq's huge night in a loss, since we know we can't get that from him often anymore." If I were a Celtic fan, God forbid, I'd be feeling the same way about KG right now.

The Lakers' perimeter defense - was super improved from the crapfest we saw in Game Two. Rasheed Wallace and, especially, Ray Allen missed some open looks, but they also enjoyed way fewer of them. Laker defenders were more disciplined about sticking tight to shooters around the arc. It wasn't just the guards. Artest and even Pau Gasol got into the action by closing out quickly on the perimeter.

Artest - learned a lesson from Game Two: if you're not making shots, don't burn the possessions. That's a nice adjustment. He didn't shoot appreciably better in Game Three, but whereas he used 20% of Laker possessions when he was on the floor in Game Two, his usage rate dropped to 12% last night. (Thanks to HoopData for the numbers.)

The Laker bench - was quite decent for the second time this series. Last night they contributed 22 points on 12 shots and got good rebounding work from Lamar Odom, Luke Walton and Jordan Farmar. Luke, as he always seems to do, helped get the ball to the right place at the right time. They didn't outplay the Celtic reserves, but that's OK. So long as the bench is holding its own, the Lakers will be fine.

The Laker pick and roll - is something I really wish we'd see more of. Especially when stagnation sets in, as it did in the third quarter last night, the P&R is a tasty way to get matchup advantages and make the defense shift and rotate. Dial it up, Phil!

Game Four - could well be a letdown. As mentioned yesterday in our game preview, twice in 2009 the Lakers won a Game Three on the road after splitting the first two at Staples. On both occasions, however, the Lakers more or less mailed in Game Four. Not to end this piece on a downer or anything, but now that home-court advantage is once again safe and sound, I think it more likely than not that the Lakers take their foot off the gas on Thursday night. I'd love to be every bit as wrong about this as I've been about Derek Fisher.

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