If you're like me, Saturday can't get here soon enough. March Madness is over, but now it's time for something better -- April, May and June Madness. The potential matchups couldn't be more tantalizing: LeBron James vs. Dwyane Wade as early as the Eastern Conference semifinals, and the Trail Blazers -- with their home dominance of the Lakers -- standing in Kobe Bryant's way out West.
I'm looking forward to those matchups and more. But in case you haven't noticed, I'm a little different. I like the underdog, which is why I'll be focusing on a player hardly anyone else will be noticing as we embark on the two-month battle of attrition that is the NBA postseason. I'll be watching Courtney Lee.
|'He's got the physical ability,' Stan Van Gundy says about rookie Courtney Lee. (Getty Images)|
"He's had his ups and downs like all the rookies do," Van Gundy said. "But he's got a great head on his shoulders. He's a very poised guy, and for the most part, if he makes mistakes, he won't continue to make them, he'll learn from them and bounce back."
In a grueling seven-game series, when individual matchups become as much a test of will and preparation as raw ability, those are traits that any player must have. But for a rookie starting on a playoff team -- much less a legitimate championship contender -- everything is magnified.
"You never know until guys get out there," Van Gundy said. "It won't just be rookies. It'll be guys at every level. Some guys are going to play well and some guys aren't. It's like any other stretch of the season. Unfortunately, everything is heightened in the playoffs, and anybody who plays or doesn't play as well in the playoffs, it'll be because they're young, or it'll be because they're too old. It'll be because they don't handle the pressure well. After the fact is usually when everybody does their best analysis."
I got a chuckle out of Van Gundy when I pointed out that, for some of us in the analysis business, good analysis is hard to come by even after the fact. I don't pretend to know whether Lee will be up to the task of guarding the opponent's primary scorer in a seven-game series, and neither does Van Gundy. I just know that for me, it'll be fun to watch. For him, it'll be heartburn-inducing.
"We'll have to see," Van Gundy said. "He's got the physical ability. He's got the quickness. He's not real big, which can be a bit of a problem when we get bigger two-guards; Pietrus can put more size on them. And the experience factor; he gets caught at times making mistakes on situations and things because he just hasn't seen all these things 1,000 times like veteran guys have. Things still catch him by surprise that veteran guys, for the most part, will pick up and see coming before the play happens."
Lee isn't there yet. But he knows the spotlight will be on him when the Magic begin their pursuit of what would be a prohibitive upset -- getting past Cleveland, Boston and the Lakers to win the franchise's first NBA title. The best thing you can say about Lee is that he isn't scared. Not yet, anyway.
"I just wanted to come in and work as hard as possible and show [Van Gundy] that I was ready," Lee said. "If I get one of those tough defensive assignments, I just want to make it difficult for him the whole game, the whole series, and don't let him go off too much to where he's leading his team to victory."
A year ago at this time, Lee was coming down from an exhilarating run to the Sweet 16 with Western Kentucky and trying to figure out where he would go in the NBA Draft. Orlando wound up picking him 22nd, believing that his 40-percent proficiency from beyond the 3-point arc would translate from college to the pro game. (It has.) What the Magic didn't imagine is that Lee would be the starting two-guard on a team closing in on a 60-win season.
"I think it's hard for a rookie to do what he's done on a team that's already won 58 games," Van Gundy said. "You normally notice the rookies getting significant playing time on teams that have significantly fewer wins. We just like the way he's come along. He's earned his time. We had some injuries that created an opportunity, and he took advantage of that."
Lee is one of four rookies considered unqualified starters for playoff teams, joining No. 1 overall pick Derrick Rose (Bulls), second-round pick Mario Chalmers (Heat) and No. 25 pick Nicolas Batum (Blazers). Batum has started 75 of his 78 games, but doesn't finish many. Miami's Michael Beasley, the No. 2 overall pick, has started only 16 games but his role and minutes are consistent with those of a starter. Portland coach Nate McMillan has said Joel Pryzbilla will continue to start at center, with 2007 No. 1 pick Greg Oden -- also a rookie -- coming off the bench.
No disrespect to any of those teams, but what Lee has done warrants special attention. He's the only rookie starting for a team with a .700-plus winning percentage, and certainly the only one who will be responsible for defending the opponent's primary scorer throughout the playoffs. Whether it's Willie Green, Ben Gordon, Ray Allen, Joe Johnson, Delonte West, Richard Hamilton, Wade or even Bryant in a possible Finals showdown, the matchups will change from series to series. They just won't get any easier.
Lee has seen a little of everything in his 39 regular-season starts, and at 6-feet-5, 205 pounds, he has even been part of Orlando's committee charged with trying to slow down LeBron. The results, as you'd expect, have been decidedly mixed. Kobe got him for a triple-double back in January, but the Magic won the game. He held Wade to 27 later that month, but Orlando lost. Wade got him for 50 in February, a Miami victory. Earlier this month, Lee held Atlanta's Johnson to 6-for-20 shooting and Orlando won.
But none of that compares to the grind of locking down an elite scorer in a long series. There's no mercy in the playoffs, and as Lee observed in a recent contentious matchup between Bryant and Houston's Ron Artest -- who engaged in an epic trash-talking session -- you have to be able to absorb barrages of all varieties. In the regular season, Kobe, Wade and the like didn't waste their trash talk on the rookie from Orlando. That's about to change.
"You're just out there playing the game and competing," Lee said. "If you need to talk trash, then trash will be talked."
Maybe by both sides.