Much of Bryant's newfound trust in his teammates is the result of Fisher's knocking down rainbow shot after rainbow shot. "He's become that third scorer we needed," says O'Neal. "He's been so consistent that when we kick it out and he doesn't make the jumper, it's a shock."
Los Angeles also missed Fisher's stabilizing influence, on the court and behind closed doors. Because of his selfless play and his soft-spoken but straightforward personality, his words carry great weight in the locker room. "Nobody on the club is more respected than Fish," says Fox. Fisher gives honest, analytical assessments, both to the media and to his teammates. He didn't shy from saying that Shaq wasn't in top shape earlier this season, or that Bryant was trying to be a one-man team.
No one holds Fisher in higher regard than Bryant, who waged countless practice wars with him in 1996-97, when they were rookies battling for playing time. Bryant was the flashy 6'6" high schooler and Fisher the anonymous 6'1" guard from Arkansas-Little Rock. "Kobe let me know he wasn't going to back down because he was younger," Fisher says, "and I let him know I wasn't going to back down because he was bigger and more well known." One day in Milwaukee they engaged in a hard-fought one-on-one duel, and while neither player can recall who won, both remember that by the time it was over, their antagonism had turned into respect.
That wasn't the first time Fisher had to prove himself on the court. Growing up in Little Rock, he would tag along to the gym with his brother, Duane Washington, even though Duane, who would play 19 NBA games in 1987-88 and '92-93, was 10 years his senior. By the time he was nine, Fisher was launching his left-handed jumper against players much older, and as a teenager he found himself in pickup games with Arkansas players and alumni, including NBA star Sidney Moncrief.
Still, Fisher didn't make his high school varsity as a sophomore, a disappointment that has fueled his workouts ever since. Though he was Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year as a senior, he was flying well under the radar of nearly everyone but Jerry West, the Lakers' executive vice president at the time, who took Fisher with the 24th pick. He's made West look like a visionary by working his way from 11th man to much-needed third scoring option.
In some ways the resurgence triggered by Fisher's return is a case of Lakers history repeating itself. The only streak in franchise history more impressive than the current one is the NBA-record 33 straight wins during the 1971-72 season, which ended in a Los Angeles championship. Forward Jim McMillian, who became a starter when Elgin Baylor retired nine games into the season, was that team's Fisher—a solid but unspectacular player whose insertion into the lineup set off a chain reaction that allowed the club to reach great heights.
These Lakers still have the formality of the Finals to take care of before they can be favorably compared with that team, but the case can be made that they have already put together the most impressive single-season playoff run in history (chart, left). None of the three teams that went 15-2 in the playoffs had a first-round opponent who finished more than two games over .500. The Lakers, though, have had no such patsies—all three of their victims won more than 50 games, including the Spurs, whose 58-24 record was the best regular-season mark in the league. "I didn't think any team could make us look as inferior as they've made us look," Robinson said after Game 3, "but then, they've made a lot of very good teams look mediocre."
That's largely because the Lakers have developed a resolve that was missing even last season. A year ago they lost what would have been series-clinching games on the road against all four of their opponents, but they have allowed themselves no such lapses in these playoffs. In Portland, an hour before Game 3 in L.A.'s best-of-five series against the Blazers, Bryant was walking through the locker room when he saw Scottie Pippen being interviewed on television. "Today," Bryant said to Pippen, as if he could hear him, "is your last day of work."
So it was, for Los Angeles put the Blazers out of their misery with a coldly efficient 99-86 win. "That game may have been the most important one in this run because it catapulted us into believing that we could not only repeat what we did last year, but might surpass it," says Fisher. "Knowing we had gained the ability to close out teams, especially on the road, felt like it was the final stage in our development."
Not quite. The final stage is likely to come on a June evening in Milwaukee or Philadelphia, when the Lakers hoist another championship trophy and take their places in history. The guess here is that it will take them only four games to do it, because this team is like Bryant's Ferrari—a finely tuned machine that gets where it's going in a hurry.