Mired in a near-historic mid-March shooting slump, Derek Fisher's NBA expiration date seemed about two years overdue.
The Thunder's February decision to sign him produced puzzled looks. Scott Brooks' decision to keep playing him came with heavy scrutiny.
But now, less than two months after missing 19 consecutive shots — three short of an NBA record — the 38-year-old's inclusion in the Thunder rotation is no longer viewed as mind-boggling, but rather a necessity.
Because, as Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals against Memphis is set to begin at noon Sunday in Oklahoma City, the 17-year veteran suddenly has become a key cog in the Thunder's playoff run.
“He's great in spacing the floor and making shots for us,” Thunder star Kevin Durant said, with all the sincerity of a guy who watched Fisher splash in 13 of his 23 three-pointers in the first round.
“(Fisher) ran the team really well and his defense was great. People might think of him as, well, he is an old guy,” Durant joked. “But his defense is really good: keeping the ball in front, contesting shots, boxing out. He plays like he's 25 years old.”
In Game 1 against the Rockets, with Russell Westbrook still in the fold, Durant poured in 24 points and delivered an incredible plus/minus of positive-34, a stat that calculates the cumulative score when a certain player is on the court.
Of all the other 45 first-round playoff games, spanning both conferences, only one other player produced a single-game plus/minus above 30 — Derek Fisher: positive-32 in a masterful Game 6 closeout performance in Houston on Friday night.
And that number is not a mirage. OKC played far better with Fisher on the court, inspired by his gritty defense and lifted up by his big shots in clutch moments.
“What I saw tonight was some of the most inspiring play I've ever seen in all my playing time and in coaching,” said the typically calm Brooks, who at one point jumped off the bench to give Fisher a wild hug after his steal and assist basically clinched the series win.
“The guy laid everything on the line,” Brooks continued. “He was probably one of the best players in the game. You guys could see it out here.”
Against Memphis, the spotlight shifts toward the paint, where the Grizzlies' behemoth front line (7-foot-1 Marc Gasol and 6-foot-10 Zach Randolph) will demand a majority of OKC's attention.
But backcourt play remains key. And with Russell Westbrook out for the remainder of the playoffs with a torn meniscus, Fisher's on-court role will continue to expand.
That's a thought that may have frightened Thunder fans just a month ago. But Fisher's strong and steady play against the Rockets may have helped put their mind at ease.
“It really makes no sense for me to have to defend Fish,” Brooks said. “It always seems like I have to defend him … But he has made our team better. His common influence is incredible, will to win, and his spirit of doing it every day is something that all teams should strive to play like.”