With one awkward step last month, Courtney Lee went from the Boston Celtics' starting shooting guard to trying to hang on to a role in the rotation.
Lee sprained his left ankle trying to play tight defense in the closing moments of a loss in Dallas on March 22. He missed the next three games and, soon after he returned, Boston shifted to a one-guard starting unit that shuffled Lee back to a reserve role (this after starting 25 straight games before the injury and 39 games overall).
Worse yet for Lee, he struggled after getting back on the floor. In his first six games after the injury, Lee shot 31.3 percent overall and 16.7 percent beyond the 3-point arc. The Celtics were minus-52 in his 108 minutes of floor time. Even as Boston's entire stable of reserve guards struggled to make a sustained impact, it was fair to wonder what Lee's postseason role would be given the rotation crunch that comes with the playoffs.
Which is why there may have been no more encouraging development for Boston during this weekend's Floridian soiree than the resurgence of Lee, who put together excellent outings in Miami and Orlando to again show that he has potential to be a key contributor in the playoffs.
Playing against the Magic, who drafted him 22nd overall in 2008, Lee connected on 7 of 10 shots and matched a season-high with 20 points. It might have taken 80 games, but his weekend exploits suggest things finally could be clicking for Lee.
Running with reserve-heavy lineups the last two games, Lee has looked for his own shot more and responded by averaging 19 points on 57.7 percent shooting to go along with 3 assists, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals over 30.5 minutes per game.
"We needed that," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of Lee's uptick in production. "Courtney, we need him. I tell him that every night. We need him to be more consistent and we need him to play with more power."
The Celtics don't need -- or likely expect -- this sort of offensive output from Lee in the postseason, but they do need a confident player who can provide steady defense and chip in some efficient second-unit scoring since Jeff Green has been elevated to the starting group.
When Lee arrived this summer -- the Celtics working a creative three-team sign-and-trade deal to bring the 27-year-old to his fourth team in five NBA seasons -- he came with the reputation of "3 and D." But he struggled mightily out of the gates with his 3-point shot and the transition to Boston's defensive system took time, even more so later in the season when injuries paired him with Avery Bradley in Boston's starting backcourt.
According to Synergy Sports data, Lee is allowing 0.839 points per possession as a defender (ranking in the 64th percentile among all league players). Opponents shoot 38.5 percent against him and, while he's struggled at times to contain pick-and-roll ball handlers, he does have a knack for disrupting them (opposing ball handlers have a turnover percentage of 25.9 in that play-type). Lee has struggled to maintain consistency on that end of the floor, but is Boston's best backup defensive option at the guard spot with the likes of Terry and Jordan Crawford more likely to be called on for an offensive spark.
As for his own offense, Lee is on pace to shoot at a career-high clip from the floor (currently at 46.7 percent, despite a dip in his 3-point shooting). Lee also has posted a career-high in assist percentage (11.6), but that's been balanced out with a career-worst turnover rate (13.1). Like Boston's other guards, he would prefer to operate away from the ball, but the Celtics need him to initiate the offense at times.
With Boston likely to look for more rest for its veterans over the final two games of the regular season, there's a chance for Lee to finish strong and carry this brand of ball into the postseason. While Bradley and Terry will see the lion's share of guard minutes in the playoffs, the Celtics need someone who can both help run the second-team offense and maintain the defensive intensity when Bradley is off the floor (or if he runs into foul trouble, which is something that's plagued him recently).
It's easy to forget that Lee has big-game experience. He appeared in 21 playoff games (16 starts) as a rookie with the Magic, playing 26.2 minutes per game and aiding Orlando's run to the NBA Finals in 2009.
Lee, who inked a four-year, $21.4 million deal when he came to Boston, has been an excellent locker room presence, bonding quickly with other members of the Celtics' young nucleus including Bradley and Green. That's a core that -- if kept intact, and Lee's play will dictate if he can settle in with a team -- will play a key role in the future of the club.
But it's also a core that could dictate how long Boston's postseason stay lasts this season. While players such as Green and Terry are more likely to earn the X-factor label, Lee can give the Celtics a much-needed boost if he can carry over the positives from this past weekend into the playoffs.
After that misstep in Dallas, he's on his way to finishing the season on the right foot.