The energy in the Fed Ex Forum was palpable Tuesday night for Marc Gasol's return game against a familiar Western Conference foe, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Every one of the 17,000-plus packed into the arena was literally sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting for Gasol to explode back onto the scene.
Meanwhile, Courtney Lee went about his business as if this was just another game. Ho-hum. That's who Lee is, and it is who he has been his entire career. He's a workman, relishing the chance to ply his craft and show the world what he brings to the best basketball league in the entire world. He doesn't do this gaudily. That wouldn't befit Lee. Rather, he brings his skill to the court in a quiet, exact manner every night, knocking down threes, playing lock down defense, moving without the ball to create for himself and others, and performing countless other tasks that go unheralded.
Tuesday night's game against the Thunder was no different for Lee than any other game, no matter the weight Grizzlies fans had placed on it due to the circumstances and never-ending hatred of the opponent. Lee's line showed he wasn't phased, or rather rose to the occasion. He finished with 24 points on 9/15 from the field, including 2/3 from behind the arc. Also, he added 2 steals on the defensive end and played lockdown defense all night, which of course does not show up in the box score. Lee was ruthlessly efficient against the Thunder. Gasol's return was huge, but it was ultimately Lee who did in the Thunder.
Here's how Lee picked apart one of the best teams in the NBA...
Phase One - Lockdown Defense
On the first Thunder offensive possession of the night, Lee drew the assignment of guarding the lightning quick Reggie Jackson. Jackson passed the ball off to the wing when he crossed half-court. Then, he received the ball back from Kevin Durant on the opposite wing on a dribble hand-off. Jackson ran Lee through two screens, and Lee did a phenomenal job of moving laterally to get through both of them. Lee, having obviously read the scouting report, went under both screens. Jackson is not a bad three-point shooter, shooting 33.3% from beyond the arc this season, but he is far more dangerous driving to the basket. Lee is then isolated on Jackson, and Jackson tries to take him off the dribble. Too bad for him, Lee demonstrated that aforementioned exceptional lateral quickness and did an excellent job of moving his feet so as to not draw a blocking foul. Lee contests the shot as well as humanly possible, and Jackson misses. Textbook defense by Lee.
In this next clip, Lee is guarding Thabo Sefolosha. He follows Sefolosha as he runs around, all the while keeping his eye on the ball. Using this tactic, he is in position to stop a Reggie Jackson drive if it occurs since he is watching the ball, and he is also able to jump out on Sefolosha if necessary. In this case, Sefolosha receives the ball behind the arc just above the corner. Lee recognizes it, and despite Perkins weak attempt at a pin down screen, Lee quickly fights through it and gets a hand in Sefolosha's face to force a missed shot.
In this last defensive clip, Lee's man, Sefolosha, is positioned in the corner. As the play develops, Sefolosha slides up to the wing and receives the ball. He immediately puts the ball on the floor and drives left towards the rim. Lee had been sagging off Sefolosha since he was on the weak side of the floor, but when Sefolosha receives the ball Lee quickly recovers, and when Sefolosha tries to deliver a bounce pass to Perkins, Lee is there to stick a hand in and force a turnover. Lee's quickness is one of his biggest assets on defense, and he showed it off on multiple occasions against the Thunder.
Phase Two - Moving without the Ball
Lee is a very skilled offensive player when it comes to moving off the ball. In this clip, Mike Conley heads left and drives into the paint. While this is developing, Lee is positioned in the weak side corner. Jackson is guarding him, but he is doing a little too much ball watching. He also makes the mistake of underestimating Lee's smart movement without the ball. When Jackson sees Conley driving baseline into the lane, he anticipates a basic hammer pass to the corner coming, so he watches Conley with his back completely turned to Lee thinking he has him covered. Lee recognizes that the extra pass to the corner is going to be impossible for Conley to make given the defensive alignment, so he cleverly slides up the arc barely above the break. Jackson has no idea that Lee has moved. Conley sees Lee's adjustment immediately and finds him for a wide open three. Bang!
Lee is excellent at using off-ball screens and hugging the screener's hip tightly, which enables him to run his defender into screens with ease. In this next clip, a designed play for Lee is called. He is positioned on the low block, and the play is for him to come off of two screens, a back screen from Calathes and a down screen from Randolph before being fed the ball at the free throw line extended for a wide open jumper. In the video, watch Lee's subtle fake move towards the opposite direction that he actually intends to go. This throws off his defender from the get go. Then, he runs tightly around the two screens by Calathes and Randolph. Having left his defender in the dust, he squares his shoulders to the rim and buries the shot.
Phase Three - Scoring
On this first play, Lee demonstrates his offensive awareness and shows how he always puts himself in a position to shoot no matter the circumstances. Zach Randolph misses a jumper, but Tayshaun Prince grabs the rebound. He quickly turns and looks to the perimeter to find an open jump shooter. Textbook stuff. He doesn't have to look long, as Courtney Lee is right at the top of the key ready to step right into an open three. That's exactly what the Grizzlies want every time after an offensive rebound. If Lee is not aware and is running back down the court after he saw the original miss, that play never happens. Rather, he kept his eyes focused on the ball and calculated where he needed to position himself if his team came up with the offensive board.
Many have declared Lee as a three-point shooter only, but that isn't true. He can finish from just about everywhere on the court, and he can do much more than just catch and shoot. In this clip, the Grizzlies don't have much time left on the shot clock. An out of bounds play is triggered for Lee. He receives the ball at the free throw line, and realizing that there isn't much time left on the clock, he turns and shoots. However, the play doesn't end there. He smartly follows his shot, and when the ball careens off the left side of the rim, he is there to tip it in. That's a pure hustle play, the kind that Grizzly nation has grown to adore in the Grit 'N Grind years. Yes, Courtney Lee will fit in just fine in Memphis.
Lee can also put the ball on the floor when necessary. He's an excellent transition player, shooting 61% in transition opportunities this season. A big reason for this success can be attributed to what he does before he receives the ball on the break. Lee has impeccable timing when it comes to converting from defense to offense. He leaks out at the perfect time, making the looks he gets in transition easier than they might be if he was a step slower to transition. In this clip, Randolph grabs the rebound, and Lee immediately shoots to the other end of the floor. Randolph dumps the ball to Conley, who immediately swings the ball up the court to Lee. Without hesitation, Lee puts the ball on the floor, changes his dribble hand, and accelerates into the lane to finish at the rim with his off hand. He does all of this almost in one fluid motion. If he hesitates for even a second after receiving the ball, the drive to the lane wouldn't be there. Lee is freakishly natural in transition, something that will certainly help a very slow Grizzlies team that doesn't get out and run a lot.
As demonstrated on multiple occasions tonight, Lee is capable of creating his own shot when he puts the ball on the floor. On this out of bounds play from under the baseline, he receives the inbounds pass on the right side of the floor. He then pivots to face the rim and immediately puts the ball on the floor with his weak hand headed left. His defender Jeremy Lamb takes one step too far left, and Lee executes a quick spin move to his right leaving Lamb behind him before finishing at the rim. It's an incredibly athletic move that gives Grizzlies a glimpse of other skills he brings to the table besides just shooting threes.
In this last offensive clip, Lee comes through in transition again, this time at a key moment. Kevin Durant has just missed a shot with the clock running down in the third quarter. With a little under five seconds to go, Conley grabs the rebound and turns up court. Of course, Lee is already sprinting down the floor to get himself in position to shoot. Conley takes a couple dribbles before sending a bullet pass straight to Lee's chest. Lee, just above the break at the three-point line, buries the shot at the buzzer, giving the Grizzlies a little extra cushion headed into the fourth quarter. If Lee's effort is not there, the Grizzlies never get a look that good at the end of the quarter. Again, his awareness and transition instincts help the Grizzlies in a huge way.
Of course everyone is excited about having Gasol back, myself included. However, it would be unjust to overlook Courtney Lee's stellar performance that propelled the Grizzlies to a key win over the Thunder. Since he arrived on Beale Street, he has given fans innumerable things to cheer about in a limited period of time. Lee stepped in and immediately fit the bill of the ideal Grizzly, playing tough defense and giving his all on every possession. Oh yeah, and hitting a few threes doesn't hurt.
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