The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals Wednesday night, coming back from an 18-point deficit. The win completes a stunning turnaround in the series, in which the Thunder won four straight after falling behind two games to zero. More shocking still, the Spurs won their first 10 playoff games in a row, before losing four straight to Oklahoma City.
With the win, this very young Thunder team is going somewhere very few of them have ever been: the NBA Finals. Only three players on the Thunder roster have ever been this deep into the postseason. Little-used back-up center Nazr Mohammed won a championship with the Spurs in 2005. Center Kendrick Perkins has been to the NBA Finals twice, where he won one title and might well have won a second had he not been injured before Game 7 against the Lakers in 2010. And then there's Derek Fisher, who seems to be there about every other year.
There's a reason it seems that way -- it's because it's true. This will be Fisher's eighth trip to the NBA Finals in a 16-year career. He has won five championships. But this one would be particularly sweet for Fisher.
Another title would give Fisher six, tying him with the likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- only Robert Horry with seven has more rings since the original Celtics dynasty ended in 1969. Perhaps more important is the run itself, coming only months after he was unceremoniously traded by the team with which he won his first five championships, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Fisher played 12 of his first 15 seasons with the Lakers, and began there this year as well. But he was shipped to the Houston Rockets at the trade deadline in what amounted to a salary dump. The Lakers, a team entering the most lucrative local broadcasting contract in NBA history, traded Fisher to avoid paying him $3.5 million next season. Fisher then forfeited essentially all of his 2012-2013 salary in a buy-out agreement with the Rockets for a chance to make another playoff run, and immediately signed with the Thunder. He chose to wear 37 in Oklahoma City as a statement -- he's 37 years old, and he wanted to show any doubters that he could still play at that age.
The fit in Oklahoma City was ideal from the start. The Thunder's back-up point guard, Eric Maynor, was lost for the season after just nine games, and the team was making due with rookie Reggie Jackson as the only point guard on the depth chart behind starter Russell Westbrook. In Fisher, they found a competent backup with an unsurpassed amount of playoff experience -- just what the young and talented team would need as they looked to improve upon their trip to the Western Conference Finals last season.
Realistically, though, it was difficult to imagine Fisher providing much more than a few minutes per game backing up Westbrook and an experienced locker room presence. The locker room impact alone made the acquisition a no-brainer. Still, as heartless as it seemed for the Lakers to part ways with their long-time stalwart, it wasn't particularly surprising from a basketball standpoint. Fisher was shooting just 38 percent for L.A., averaging just six points and three assists per game. By any metric, he was among the least productive rotation players in the league. But with Westbrook playing over 35 minutes per game, the Thunder didn't need a lot out of Fisher, just a steady hand to run the show whenever Westbrook needed a breather.
Instead, in the 20 regular season games he played with the Thunder, Fisher averaged over 20 minutes per game. Coach Scott Brooks frequently used him beyond the back-up point guard role, playing him together with Westbrook for extended stretches.
That has only increased in the playoffs. In Game 6 Wednesday night, Fisher was on the floor with Westbrook for the entire fourth quarter. He made the one billionth big shot of his career with a little over four minutes left when he hit a three to give the Thunder a five-point lead -- and followed it up with the 1,000,000,001st when he hit a bank shot a couple minutes later to stretch the lead to six. Everyone knew that Fisher was a good acquisition for the Thunder when he joined them in March -- but how many would have predicted that he'd play the entire fourth quarter of a close game as the Thunder were clinching the West?
Fisher is inextricably linked with Kobe Bryant. The two came into the league together in 1996, Fisher a 22-year-old after four years of college, Bryant straight out of high school and barely 18. Now it is Fisher, and not his long-time Lakers' teammate, who is returning to the NBA Finals for an eighth time. It's worth noting that when Fisher left the Lakers in 2004, when he signed as a free agent with Golden State, the Lakers reached their low ebb of the Kobe era. Bryant had never won a playoff series without Fisher in the backcourt alongside him until they beat the Nuggets in the first round last month. In the three seasons between Fisher's stints in L.A., the Lakers missed the playoffs once and were eliminated in the first round the other two times. By contrast, in his 12 postseasons with the Lakers, Fisher never failed to advance beyond the first round, and he went to the Western Conference Finals with the Utah Jazz in 2007.
With Wednesday night's win, Fisher's postseason record improves to 145-79, an astounding .647 winning percentage. Bryant's stands at 126-85 -- not at all shabby at .597, but well behind Fisher's mark.
This is not to suggest that Fisher is better than Bryant -- that would be absurd. His playoff production this season remains lukewarm; he's averaging just six points per game, shooting just over 40 percent. But there's something ineffable about the guy. He's just a winner.
And now he's looking to win his sixth title. Fisher and Bryant remain close friends, but don't think for a moment that the 37-year-old won't let his pal hear about it if he gets that extra ring.