LOS ANGELES -- Numbers have never been Derek Fisher's friend. He's the shortest (6-foot-1) and oldest (35) player on the Los Angeles Lakers' roster, and if you judged his career off his statistics (8.7 points and 2.6 assists) you surely wouldn't rely on him to be anything more than a reserve if you were building a championship team.
Yet there he is, year after year, in the starting backcourt of a championship contender. Not because of his blazing speed, uncanny shooting ability or playmaking prowess, but because he's almost always in the right place, at the right time, doing the right things.
Even on a night when he puts up big numbers, scoring 22 points in the Lakers' 103-101 win over the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals at Staples Center, no one will be talking about him. No one will remember he hit big shot after big shot to keep the Lakers ahead of the Suns in the second half of a game that was suddenly slipping away from them.
As Fisher sat at the news-conference podium after the game, Ron Artest, who made the dramatic game-winning putback, came up and sat beside him. The media who had been asking Fisher about Artest's shot were now able to shift their focus to Artest himself as Fisher gave his teammate a pat on the back and quietly walked out.
Fisher had been in Artest's shoes many times before and smiled as he watched him enjoy his moment in the spotlight. It almost seems as if those game winners are the only times Fisher's true meaning to his team is highlighted. Those are the few moments when he's lauded as a leader instead of labeled as a liability, which seems to be the case between the months of October and April.
"I'm pretty used to it," Fisher said. "I think for most of my basketball career, even as a kid, I was never necessarily the best guy on the team or even the best two or three guys. I was always kind of a team guy, the guy that kept everything together and just ran the team."
In the first quarter, Fisher was as aggressive as he has been all season with his dribble penetration, scoring 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting (1-of-2 on 3s) and 4-of-4 free throws. He helped the Lakers to a 24-21 lead after they fell behind by seven points. He single-handedly broke or at least cracked the Suns' highly praised zone defense by consistently taking it upon himself to drive to the basket and either draw a foul, get a shot or create an open look for one of his teammates.
The odds of Fisher's beating the Suns and Steve Nash with his dribble penetration seemed as likely as the Suns beating the Lakers with the zone; after all, Fisher is in the twilight of his 14-year career and is far from being a finisher around the basket. But there he was, time after time, poking holes in the defense and creating shots in one form or another.
"He shot the ball well and he read the defense well," Lakers guard Shannon Brown said. "He had a Derek Fisher day. He's very comfortable out there and he performs in crucial playoff games."
We should be used to this by now with Fisher, whom Lakers fans have been trying to find a replacement for as a starter since he returned three years ago, and yet we're constantly amazed when the diminutive point guard from Little Rock, Ark., comes through in the clutch.
"He's our captain," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. "We look to him on and off the court for leadership and guidance, and he's always there for us when we need him. You can always count on him being there."
While everyone wants to credit the Pau Gasol trade for making the Lakers a championship contender again, the truth is that in Fisher's first stint with the team, the Lakers won three titles and made it the Finals in 2004, but in the three years he was gone they failed to make it out of the first round, and now they're one win away from making it back to the Finals for the third straight season with Fisher running the point. Call it a coincidence all you want, but the guy finds a way to win.
Even in his only season in Utah before coming back to the Lakers, Fisher played in every game and served as a mentor for Deron Williams as the Jazz made it to the conference finals for the first time in nearly a decade. They haven't made it back since, getting eliminated the last three years by Fisher and the Lakers.
Despite his track record in the playoffs, it seems Fisher constantly has to defend himself to his critics during the season before they finally realize his worth when May and June arrive. But leave it to the elder statesman to rely on a hip-hop song by DJ Khaled, Ludacris, T-Pain, Snoop Dogg and Rick Ross to describe his mindset when he hears people doubt him.
"I've never looked at criticism as a personal thing," Fisher said. "I've been on great teams, and when you have Phil Jackson as a coach and Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and the guys I've played with, you're not getting much press or attention. So I try to keep doing what I do. And you know there's a song out right now called 'All I Do is Win,' and that's pretty much what I focus on and allow that to do the speaking."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.