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Celtics guard Courtney Lee (11) goes strong to the basket Thursday night against Brooklyn.With 8:22 to play in the second quarter of the Celtics' 102-97 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, Courtney Lee attacked the basket from the right wing, putting in a layup and exhibiting an aggressiveness that had been absent in a handful of his recent outings.
Lee finished the night with 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting to go along with a team-high nine rebounds, three assists, and some steady defense against a strong corps of Brooklyn guards. It was a positive sign for a player who has been plagued by inconsistency of late -- something every Boston role player has seemed to have dealt with at one time or another this season -- and it was welcome production for a Celtics team playing without Rajon Rondo.
Lee, who began the season in the starting lineup and is now coming off the bench, made two outside shots -- a corner 3-pointer and a short jumper on the left side -- similar to ones he had been missing of late, and he added another strong drive to the rim midway through the fourth quarter that was almost identical to his one from the second frame. It added up to the kind of all-around performance head coach Doc Rivers would like to see more often.
"Courtney just came out and played," said Rivers. "He didn't think about if he was starting or not starting, or how many minutes, who's playing. He played basketball tonight, and when he does that, he's a great basketball player. And I thought, defensively, he was our best defensive player on the floor. I thought he was fantastic."
The absence of Rondo might have played a role in Lee's productive outing. Without Boston's primary ball-handler in the fold, there were more opportunities for others to make plays, and Lee served as one of those beneficiaries. With the Celtics' offensive playbook essentially scrapped without Rondo, Lee and his teammates had more freedom to make things happen on their own -- a process that perhaps played into Lee's strengths as a guard with a quick first step and an ability to finish at the rim.
The challenge for Lee moving forward will be to somehow bottle the aggressiveness he displayed Thursday night and utilize it when Rondo is back in the fold. When the Celtics are rolling with a full unit, there might be fewer opportunities for the likes of Lee, Jeff Green, and even Jason Terry, but that doesn't mean those players can afford to shy away from their strengths. Lee won't have many plays run for him, but he still needs to utilize his athletic ability to get to the rim and his outside shot to serve as a perimeter threat.
With Rondo controlling the ball and the offense as a whole as much as he does, it's easy to see why Lee might sometimes fade into the background, particularly when he's on the floor with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett -- two players the Celtics are consistently trying to get offensive looks for. But by continuing to move and be aggressive, Lee can help to open things up not only for those other players, but for himself as well.
As Rivers alluded to, it could be a mental game for Lee right now. His minutes and spot in the rotation have fluctuated over the team's first nine games, enough to spur on inconsistency in any player. But Thursday might have been a stark reminder for Lee that both he and the Celtics are at their best when he worries less about thinking, and more about playing.