Derek Fisher has been through this before. Then again he's been through just about everything before when it comes to an NBA career.
Fourteen seasons into it, with four rings stored away in a lockbox somewhere to show for all that time, the Lakers co-captain knows that as soon as he came back to Los Angeles his team went on to two straight Finals appearances and is vying for a third, even though Pau Gasol's arrival overshadows his return as the reason for the turnaround.
He returned from Salt Lake City, where he spent one season with the Utah Jazz in 2006-07 before being released from his contract so he could move back to L.A. so that his daughter, Tatum, could be closer to the cancer treatment facilities she needed to treat the tumor in her left eye.
His daughter is healed now, thankfully, but Jazz fans aren't. They still chide him whenever he returns to EnergySolutions Arena, even though he was responsible for one of the truly memorable moments in franchise history. Fisher arrived at the arena during the third quarter in Game 2 of the 2007 Western Conference semifinals against Golden State after being with his daughter at a New York hospital and led the Jazz to an overtime victory.
"I guess I've just gotten to a place where there are a faction of people [in Utah] that could care less why, they just know that Fish had to do what he had to do and there's a faction of people who, regardless of what understanding they have of it, they're not going to accept it," Fisher said in a sit-down interview with ESPN Los Angeles prior to Saturday's Game 3 between the Lakers and Jazz.
"So, that's about the extent of my thought on it. Each year it's gotten less and less, I guess time and energy even thinking about it. I was there for one year, it was a great year, we were accomplishing great things as a team. The moments and what happened are all documented, those are real. I really look at it now as just going to play against a tough team in a tough environment and not so much as going back to my home arena, it doesn't hold it like that for me anymore."
What does hold is his place in Lakers Lore that grows with every game he plays. He's up to his old tricks in this year's playoffs, as his points, rebounds, assists and steals per game are all up from his regular-season averages and his shooting percentages from both the field (38.0 percent to 43.5 percent) and from beyond the arc (34.8 to 44.1 percent) have increased dramatically.
It's no aberration, either. The guy they call Mr. 0.4 because of that shot against San Antonio, the guy who hit two crucial 3-pointers in Game 4 of last year's Finals, has higher shooting percentages from the floor and from 3 in 184 pressure-packed career playoff games than he does in the 1,028 games he's played in the regular season.
Fisher, the battle-tested veteran, took some time after practice Thursday to speak about the state of the team and the future of his career.
ESPN LA: Your team has captured six of the 16 wins it needs to accomplish its goal of a repeat championship. Are you happy with where the team is at?
Fisher: Personally, I am. We're so quick to compare teams and stats and players and numbers and try to pick apart reasons why things aren't going, or they should be, but I guess having the experience that I have and have had, I just hate to get caught up in all that.
To be up 2-0 in the conference semis, with home-court advantage in your favor, it's just hard to complain. Even when we were lollygagging through the back part of the season, there was a part of me that was optimistic about the fact that, because we have so much room for improvement and because there will always kind of be a sense of urgency, that those things will end up working out for us.
ESPN LA: Your statistics are up across the board during the playoffs. How can you account for that?
It's a combination of still feeling good, which is not any different than during the regular season, but, the playoff schedule, things kind of normalize and balance out. There's less travel, there are less games in a week, you know, those kind of things. You're playing against the same team, you know exactly where your shots are going to come from. You know how things are going to happen and then also, just minutes being extended. That helps all players. If you can get a few more minutes out there, it helps the rhythm to your game. I think all of those things have helped those improvements and then also, I think in terms of execution of offense and X's and O's, we do better as a team so I think it helps everybody kind of smooth their games out.
ESPN LA: After the first couple of games in the first round against Oklahoma City when you shot a combined 6-for-22, Phil Jackson came out and told the media, "I'm not worried about Fish's shooting." Do you hear that support?
I don't hear when he makes those comments to you guys or publicly, I don't hear or see as much, but I know from his interactions with me and things that he's saying while we're watching film and whatnot that it's not a concern for him. I don't know if that's just because he's been my coach for so many years and he knows what he's seeing or I think he's just aware that a lot of it, for guys like myself or guys that come off the bench or even times Ron [Artest] and Lamar [Odom], a lot of it is not just about the shooting part of it. There's at times a lack of rhythm offensively for guys that aren't Pau [Gasol], aren't Kobe [Bryant], aren't Andrew [Bynum]. So, he doesn't worry as much about certain guys' shooting, because he knows if we execute better, then the rhythm to those guys' shots will be there.
ESPN LA: You guys got together for a team dinner two nights before the start of this year's playoffs and even though you've tried to keep secret what was talked about, from other conversations I've had, it seems to me the message was, "Let's do this thing right because we don't know who will be back next year or if we'll ever get this chance again."
That was really the only message. I think there were a lot of things that were said that I guess you could put into different categories, but that's really what it came down to. I think sometimes we say it. We kind of assume that if we win a championship everyone is going to be back and everything is going to be just perfect, but I just gave the example that last year we won it and Trevor [Ariza] is not back and the reality of this business is that there is somebody at this table that won't be back next year. That's just how the business works. So, let's not squander this opportunity to do this together with each other because there's no guarantee that we'll all be at this table again next year.
ESPN LA: Do you expect to be back in L.A. next season?
I don't have much expectations in this game anymore to be honest. I really don't. I would love to, but even though I haven't changed teams a lot, I've experienced a lot in this business and so I've come to realize that you can't If you get too personal, things get a little bit off kilter so you just really have to think of it to play your game in a personal way with passion, with integrity, be competitive out there, play with desire, but then when it comes to your position with a team, your contract, your free-agent negotiations, it's still ultimately a business. So, I've been here for so many years that it obviously would seem odd not to be here, but I haven't made my plans on next year just based on being here. I'm just taking it one day at a time and regardless of what happens, coming back or not, the best thing for us is to win a championship and just kind of let things play out from there.
ESPN LA: Have you had any conversations with management about your future?
We talked about it over last summer and we all agreed that it would be best to just concentrate on performing and address it when we have to in July. Whenever you're a free agent, the more opportunity to show that you can perform, the better, which means that playing all the way until the end of June is the best way to get it done.
I think guys are growing in their understanding and respect for the fact that age doesn't define your level of performance anymore. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the athlete deserves a lot of the credit for just continuing to put that work in and manage his or her body and the things that they do to stay at that level. It gives me confidence, even more confidence, that, because I'm 35, it has nothing to do with my future in this game. There are guys that are still playing at a high level that are a few years older than me. I've said before that this isn't my last season and seeing those guys do well only reinforces those thoughts.
ESPN LA: Is there a sense of pride that you're still starting for the defending NBA champions when many guys who have been All-Stars have come and gone during the course of your career?
There's definitely a sense of pride as a competitor when you feel like you've been able to stay at something and not just kind of be in there, but be on the best teams and a part of the best moments and plays and all those things, there's definitely a pride you take from it. Only you understand fully the work and the dedication and time you put in, it's hard to quantify that for other people, so, it's definitely a great source of pride and something that I use to keep me pushing and wanting to go harder and harder every year.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com