New support role with Thunder suits Fisher

March 30, 2012

LOS ANGELES – Derek Fisher needed more than an hour to ice down, shower, dress in a sharp gray suit and take his place at an interview podium as a conquering hero. In this instance, at least, he arrived on his own terms.

The same could not be said for the rest of the night, in which Fisher took center stage in an odd spectacle: playing a bit part — but a significant one — in Oklahoma City’s 102-93 dismantling of the Lakers.

Fisher had built a reputation on the Lakers' championship teams as the consummate professional. He was the glue guy who kept Kobe Bryant in line, Paul Gasol’s chin up, Ron Artest from going off the reservation, and always kept hope alive when the ball landed in his hands in the waning seconds.

So, while he seems touched by the heartfelt reception he received at Staples Center, and genuinely pleased to be with a team that is better equipped to reward him with a sixth NBA championship ring, Fisher could not swallow the suggestion that the Lakers had done him a favor by jettisoning him two weeks ago at the trading deadline.

“I’m not sure if I can answer that in terms of doing me a favor,” said Fisher, who declined a $3.4 million option for next season to leverage a buyout from Houston so he could sign with the Thunder and hadn’t seen his wife and kids in the eight days since he joined Oklahoma City.

“Do I enjoy having to piecemeal my family situation together? No,” he continued. “They didn’t do me any favors in that regard. In terms of the team, I don’t think it’s about favors. I think I made the most out of the circumstances I was placed in and I’m very happy with the decision I made.”

The feeling appears to be mutual amongst his new family. Fisher scored all seven of his points in the second quarter, when the Thunder fixed their leaky defense. That set the stage for Russell Westbrook, who had 36 points and six assists, to dominate the second half as Oklahoma City blew past the Lakers for the second time in five weeks.

The dramas of the last few days, of Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum being benched, are trifling matters when cast against the big picture: the Lakers aren’t nearly as good as the Thunder.

Fisher’s role is modest with his new team. After backup point guard Eric Maynor’s season-ending knee injury, the Thunder simply needed a veteran to run the offense, be a solid defender and make an occasional basket. He is also being lauded as a veteran presence on a team with few of them.

“Now I can listen to somebody and sit back and chill,” said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, who had been charged with dispensing wisdom he had gleaned from winning a title with the Celtics. “Fish couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Or walked into a better situation. At this point in his career, Fisher, 37, is much better suited to handle those tasks than he is starting for a club that has its sights set on the championship.

That is, essentially, why the Lakers acquired Ramon Sessions, and why they dispatched Fisher and a first-round draft pick to Houston for seldom-used Jordan Hill. When Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak made the deals, one of the reasons he cited in dealing Fisher was to create a more comfortable environment for Sessions. That was widely interpreted as a sign that Fisher, who thought the Lakers low-balled him in their last contract negotiation and was miffed that they tried to trade for Chris Paul, would be less than welcoming.

“It flies in the face of not just what I’ve done since I’ve been in the NBA, but the type of team player I’ve been in every group I’ve ever been a part of,” Fisher said. “I was raised on team sports and that has always stood for sharing and sacrificing and giving of yourself so that the group can succeed.”

Kupchak said Thursday his comments were not meant as a critique of Fisher as much as it was a nod to his popularity.

“It could be [a problem] in the locker room,” Kupchak said. “I mean, Derek’s an icon. You’re walking past Derek and you say, I’m taking his minutes. That’s not really fair to do. What if Ramon has a bad game at home and the crowd starts? It’s not fair. I mean [Fisher] wouldn’t have been happy. He wants to play. You go from a starter to maybe a bench player at best, you’re not going to be happy. But he would have been the consumate professional. That’s just the way he leads his life.”

Kupchak said between Steve Blake ($4 million), Sessions ($4.3 million) and Fisher ($3.4 million), the Lakers would have had too much money tied up at the point guard position and he did not want to leave Mike Brown in a position of keeping one of them tied to the bench.

“We felt, making this trade, that [Fisher] would be the one who didn’t play,” Kupchak said. “He would try to earn it and he would fight and scrap, but the likelihood was that he’d be the odd man out. That wouldn’t’ be fair to Derek.”

Fisher said he held no animosity toward the Lakers, and that he realized it was part of the business. But others who know him are certain that Fisher is motivated to show the Lakers what they are missing.

“At the end of the day, it’s a business, but he’s been there for a while and contributed to the last five championships, won numerous games, hit numerous big shots,” said Phoenix guard Shannon Brown, who was a Lakers teammate the last three seasons. “I don’t think he liked the way he went out.”

Perkins, who was dealt by the Celtics before the trade deadline last year, knows the emotions that Fisher is sorting out. He said it took a week to get past the anger of being traded and to feel at home with his new team.

“I can definitely feel him on that,” Perkins said. “You’ve been with an organization for so long, you’ve helped them accomplish their goals and all of a sudden they use you, they don’t need you no more, they get you right up out of there. Like I always say, another team’s trash is another team’s treasure. He’s definitely our treasure here.”

Fisher has stayed mostly in the background in his new locker room, picking his spots carefully when to speak up. But he appeared rejuvenated by what he called the unbridled passion of a young team that has not yet won a championship.

“When you have a championship, you’re carrying that baggage with you, and that pressure to have to do it again,” Fisher said. “It’s extremely refreshing and enjoyable to play on a team that is really not playing with any additional pressure to have to do anything. We’re showing up every night just having fun and playing the game. To be on such a young team is a lot of fun.”

Then consider how much fun a championship would be. If Fisher rides along to another title with Oklahoma City, he might even thank the Lakers. Then the cost – the money he gave up next season and the hardship on his family – may no longer dampen his spirit, or rain on his parade.