Courtney Lee is a rebounder — and not principally in the sense of being a player who grabs missed shots.
Yes, Lee’s rebounds at the end of Games 4 and 5 have put the Charlotte Hornets in position to eliminate the Miami Heat this Friday in North Carolina, but the story of Courtney Lee’s rebounding is more a matter of his resilience than his ability to clean the glass.
For years, Lee has had to bear the weight of this memory from his rookie season, in Game 2 of the 2009 NBA Finals when he was a member of the Orlando Magic:
The missed layup against the Los Angeles Lakers denied Orlando a victory and became the hinge-point moment of the series.
Such a moment could have happened to anyone. Veteran Nick Anderson of the 1995 Orlando Magic — also thrust into an NBA Finals series with a chance to seal a game — missed those four free throws in Game 1 against the Houston Rockets. He had several years in the league under his belt and didn’t have to shoulder such a crushing blow as a rookie.
Yet, despite his veteran identity, Anderson simply couldn’t handle the profound nature of his failure. His career was never the same after that moment.
Rookie, veteran, it doesn’t matter. Life is a theater of the imperfect, and as Courtney Lee bounced around teams — six of them — he had to wonder where his place was in professional basketball. When Lee was traded from Memphis to Charlotte before this year’s deadline, Lee wasn’t initially happy, for one thing.
Second, few in the league could have imagined that two and a half months later, Lee would be the trade-deadline acquisition which would most centrally affect an Eastern Conference playoff series, all while Joe Johnson of the Miami Heat would not only go quiet, but would fail to box out Lee on what could soon become the series’ most defining moment.
Let’s take a look at that rebound, shall we?
It’s important to first note where certain players are in the picture.
Hassan Whiteside, Miami’s foremost rebounder, is on the left elbow after contesting Kemba Walker’s shot. Underneath the basket is Cody Zeller of Charlotte. To his left is Josh Richardson, an undersized player relative to Zeller. Because Richardson was caught underneath the basket while Whiteside necessarily (and effectively) challenged Walker’s shot, Dwyane Wade helped to crash the glass — he’s to Zeller’s right. Wade made a hard and decisive move, and if the miss had bounced either to the left or the right, the Heat very likely would have gotten the ball. The fact that the ball bounced forward, to the right-elbow area of the floor, obviously represented a random element of luck for the Hornets.
However, within that randomness and luck was the fact that Courtney Lee outworked Joe Johnson, who can be seen standing just to the right of the right elbow in the picture above.
Lee is standing behind the “87” in the TNT score graphic. He came racing from the right corner to chase down the miss. Johnson just stood there watching. Johnson has simply not taken charge in this series at the offensive end, and when his team needed a defensive rebound, Johnson’s effort simply wasn’t there, either. Lee made his own luck by running to the ball and an open area on the floor. Johnson didn’t work nearly as hard, and boom, the Hornets can now win four straight to cool off the Heat.
Let’s see how Lee’s huge Game 5 rebound compares to his Game 4 rebound, which (combined with two made foul shots) sealed that win for the Hornets in their recovery from a 2-0 series deficit:
What’s different in this picture is that Whiteside is standing on the edge of the hash-marked portion of the free throw circle, about eight feet from the rim. Wade is to the right of the basket, with Zeller once again underneath the tin for Charlotte. This time, with Whiteside in the area, Wade shouldn’t have felt the need to help underneath the rim, instead tending to Lee.
Yes, it’s once again true that if Kemba Walker’s missed shot had bounced left or right, Miami would have had coverage in either direction. Yet, as was the case in Game 5 two nights later, the ball bounced forward, roughly to the same right-elbow spot on the floor. Charlotte received a dose of fortune, but Lee once again outworked every Miami player in the area. You can see Luol Deng (9) watching more than running from his position just behind the three-point line.
Courtney Lee rebounded magnificently… but to emphasize the point, that’s not the central way in which he’s rebounded in this series.
Look at Lee’s stat lines against Miami. The journeyman has hit more than three shots in a game only once (5), and that was in a Game 2 loss. He’s made a total of only three 3-pointers in this series. He was 2 of 9 from the floor in Game 5. He’s endured a lot of difficult moments within the flow of this series.
He rebounded from those moments, just as he’s continuously rebounded from Game 2 in 2009.
Courtney Lee makes less than a third of what Joe Johnson makes. Yet, he’s become the far more important trade-deadline pickup in Hornets-Heat. That’s how a professional rebounds from a change of locations he didn’t initially want.
Courtney Lee is that quiet role-player professional who survives in a cutthroat environment. We’ve seen exactly why Lee’s career is so valuable — on its own terms, and to the Charlotte Hornets — in each of the past two games in this series.