HOUSTON — It’s not just the words, but the way you say them. It’s not just the results that find you on top of the mountain, but all the steps it took to get you there.
That Derek Fisher is still playing in the NBA 17 years after he arrived from Arkansas-Little Rock is no more of a surprise than the fact that he helped finally close the door on the young and restless Rockets. Slammed it. Bolted it. Then hammered in a couple of nails for good measure. It’s what he does.
Maybe part of the reason the 38-year-old Fisher is never looking toward the end of his career is because he’s always been so busy working on the end of games.
— 0.4 seconds left at San Antonio in 2004.
— Running out of the tunnel and onto the floor at Salt Lake City in 2007.
— The pair of clutch 3-pointers at Orlando in the 2009 NBA Finals.
— Game 3 of The Finals at Boston in 2010.
If there’s a loop of basketball video highlights playing on a loop somewhere in eternity, you can pretty much bet that Fisher will always be front and center, hitting shots, making plays, making his team better just by being on it.
You could argue that Fisher was the second-best Thunder player in the series behind Kevin Durant.
“I’ve been around a lot of guys and heard them talk to the team,” said Thunder forward Nick Collison. “There’s usually a lot of eye-rolling and things like that. But with Derek, it’s different. He has a way.”
Fisher’s way was to pull the Thunder back from the brink on Friday night in Game 6 just when things looked like they could be getting away. When he checked into the game with 5:48 left in the third quarter, Oklahoma City was down by 10 and 12 minutes later the Thunder were up by 13. Fisher scored all 11 of his points in the final 13 minutes of the game.
“It really makes no sense for me to defend Fish, what he brings to the team,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “It seems like I have to defend him. But I’ll tell you what, when we brought him in last year, it really helped us. Thank God he was available and we made the trade … but he has made our team better.”
That’s always been his knack, whether he’s standing in the shadow of Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant in L.A. or Durant or Russell Westbrook in OKC.
It’s not just the big shots on the court, though there are many. It’s the small talk in the locker room and on the practice floor, where he nurtures them all as if they were his kindergarten class and gives a second-year point guard like Reggie Jackson some extra care.
When Westbrook tore the ligament in his knee and was lost for the series, it was Jackson who inherited the burden of filling his sneakers. It’s been a heavy lift, but you could see Jackson flex his muscles and eventually get the whole thing off the ground as the series continued because Fisher showed him how to handle the load.
“He brings tremendous confidence to this team and to me,” Jackson said. “He is a great mentor. You can’t tell he’s the oldest guy on the team. …There’s a mental battle to this game and things start to slow down and your body starts to wear and tear, but mentally I haven’t seen anybody prepare like him.”
Fisher scored eight points, shot 3-for-3 from the field, knocked down a pair of killer 3s and made two big steals in the fourth quarter. He also shadowed James Harden defensively through the final period, cutting off driving lanes, challenging shots. In other words, all of the things that he’s been doing for nearly two decades in the league, which have earned him five championship rings and a level of respect in a locker room atmosphere where frauds and self-promoters are easily exposed and ignored.
“He’s like another coach, only he’s one of us right here as a player,” said Collison. “He has a way of talking to you that makes you want to listen.”
They are common sense things, nothing magical or mystical in what he’s saying.
“I’m just reminding them that it’s about us, about our group,” Fisher said. “That accomplishing something special requires you to give more than you receive.”
Now with a harder-than-expected first round series behind them, the road only gets tougher for the Thunder against the rugged Grizzlies and — down one freakishly talented shooting guard — they’ll need all of his wisdom and their wiles to keep moving forward.
They listen to him because he’s done it. They respect him and they shake their heads at him because he keeps right on doing it. And all the while, he’s never lifting up his head to take a peek at the end of a career.
“No, I don’t,” Fisher said. “I really don’t. It’s a state of mind. As long as you’re willing to physically work hard and be focused on the discipline…you don’t have to look at age as the end. As long as you can find ways to impact your team and be helpful, why not keep going?”
The kid Jackson has his thoughts from across the locker room.
“I think they should sign him to a four-year (contract),” he said.
Fisher laughs and shakes his head. The end is coming, but that doesn’t mean he has to greet it.