Oklahoma City • You knew it was coming. You knew that if he stayed on the court long enough in the fourth quarter, there would have to be at least one Derek Fisher moment, a chance to uncoil that pedestrian looking but still-dangerous southpaw jumper, to send a forget-me-not to old friends in Los Angeles.
It is fair to say that no player has had a more tumultuous time of it this contracted NBA season than the former Kobe Bryant running mate known as Fish. And that no one deserved to be fitted more for an NBA Finals cap late Wednesday night after the Thunder won the Western Conference title by rallying in the second half to defeat the San Antonio Spurs.
Before a single ball was dribbled in December, Fisher was on the job as the president of the players union throughout tortuous lockout negotiations. For all the hours toiled, all the leadership exerted, he was thanked for his effort with an unsettling attempt to oust him after he challenged the work practices of the union’s executive director, Billy Hunter.
Then the Lakers demonstrated their gratitude to Fisher for five championship rings and countless big shots, much like the two he drained down the stretch of Oklahoma City’s 107-99 Game 6 victory, by showing him the door. The implication was that if he was too old and slow to start, then he might as well be finished.
But there he was late Wednesday night, helping the Thunder finish the job with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, burying a left-corner 3 ball that gave his team a 96-91 lead with just more than four minutes left.
Fisher added a banker off the dribble from the right side to make it 103-97. While playing every fourth-quarter minute, he fought through the Spurs’ trademark screens while chasing Tony Parker. He was the veteran on the floor as the Thunder’s core of kiddie stars ascended to the stage that Fisher knows his way around like the freeways of LA.
“It’s a lot of trust to put on a guy that’s only been around for a couple of months,” he said of coach Scott Brooks’ decision to play him over starter and defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha. “But at the same time, that’s what I was brought here for.”
Too proud was Fisher to make this more about being sent away by the Lakers than being wanted by the Thunder. Too classy was he to gloat about how the Thunder ended the Lakers’ season in the second round.
“I don’t ever get any happiness from seeing people that I was close to or worked with for a long time not to be successful,” he said. “All this is great, but life still comes back to family, friends and loved ones.”
Rewards come in strange, mysterious ways, especially in the playoffs. As the Lakers, like the Spurs, face an uncertain future with an aging infrastructure, is the country ready for a long encampment in the spotlight by a team from a heartland outpost known as Tornado Alley? Can the hedonistic NBA culture embrace a franchise that asks its crowd to participate in prayer to an authority much higher than its young multimillionaire dunkers?
While Oklahoma City has no courtside celebrity conga line seats, Durant is not Tim Duncan and the Thunder are far from the second coming of the Spurs. Here there is enough star power to challenge the notion that supreme NBA talent must invariably migrate to the vacationland hot spots like South Beach.
Durant and Westbrook didn’t need to. They signed long-term deals, forgoing their first crack at free agency and establishing the Thunder as the anti-Heat for the foreseeable future.
When asked if the Thunder could be the league’s premier franchise in the commercially potent way that Magic and Kobe’s Lakers and Jordan’s Bulls have been, Fisher called it “a loaded question.” But he proceeded to say: “I think our game has been and will always be built around stars. And when you have Kevin Durant, you have Russell Westbrook, James Harden, those types of players, I think you’re capable of drawing interest with people interested in seeing how far a team like that can go.”
If that sounded like a bit of a hedge, remember that Fisher spent 121/2 of his 16 seasons dribbling past the likes of Jack Nicholson at courtside. He was Phil Jackson’s coach on the court and Bryant’s confidant. The roots are deep in many aspects of L.A. life. As he dressed Wednesday night, he asked a reporter from Los Angeles for the outcome of the Kings-Devils Stanley Cup finals game and shook his head in disappointment when told New Jersey had won to stay alive.
He hadn’t checked his phone to see if Bryant had checked in with a congratulatory text, but that would have to wait until after an informal chat with a blond woman who was chatting up the Thunder’s joyous players before they departed the room.
In how many markets would the state governor — in this case Mary Fallin — wait around until midnight for Fisher, who was the last to dress, in the stall next to center Kendrick Perkins, his old Celtics adversary.
“I hope you like our fans and community support,” Fallin told Fisher as they shook hands. “The Thunder is America’s team.”
Not quite yet, but perhaps soon enough, with the irrepressible Durant — who closed out the Spurs with 14 rebounds and five assists to go with 34 points while playing all 48 minutes of Game 6 — having taken the mythical baton from Bryant after it was messengered here by Fisher.
Most dynamic player in the West on the conference’s best team with more room to grow, personally and collectively, beginning next week. There is a great Fish story to tell about the Thunder, but that isn’t it.