NEW YORK — When the Celtics signed Courtney Lee as a free agent, he was projected as a perimeter threat and fill-in at guard while Avery Bradley recovers from shoulder surgeries.
But Lee is proving to be capable of even greater contributions.
In the 115-85 exhibition win over the Nets on Thursday, Lee led the Celtics with 18 points (Paul Pierce also had 18) and four steals. And Lee’s scoring mostly resulted not from hanging out behind the 3-point line (he was 1 for 4 on threes), but by getting open for short-range jumpers and getting out in transition.
“Courtney was our best defender,” coach Doc Rivers said after the game. “He runs the floor, does a lot of tough things. He’s really buying into everything. They all are.”
The Celtics took the day off Friday, traveling to Albany, N.Y., for Saturday night’s game against the Knicks.
After three successive defeats, the Celtics upped their defensive intensity in routing a Nets team that went with starters for most of the game in an attempt to win over fans at the new Barclays Center.
The Celtics’ backcourt of Lee and Rajon Rondo set the tone.
In the opening 32 seconds, Lee and Rondo both turned steals in layups. By the three-quarter mark, Deron Williams had been pressured into six turnovers. By then, Lee had shown the Celtics would have little defensive dropoff using him as a replacement for Bradley.
“It starts with our pick-and-roll coverage,” Rondo said. “We did a great job of communicating. You see a team twice in three days you kind of learn their sets, and vice versa. So, we did a good job talking and Coach did a good job preparing us for the game, so we just did what we’re supposed to do.
It was the first time the Celtics set the tone since returning from Europe. And their intensity clearly disrupted the Nets.
“We just came out to play,” Rondo said. “Every time we put the uniform on, we’re going out to win. We just want to compete, we don’t know how to go out and play easy.
“[Lee] is buying into his role, which is our defensive stopper. He’s going to be that every night. [Thursday], it was Joe [Johnson], and he did an excellent job denying the ball. He doesn’t take it easy. Even though this is preseason, we want to play as hard as we can every night.
Asked if Lee had been evaluated as a high-level defensive player, Rivers replied, “We thought he was. He was in Orlando, the last winning team he was on. Yes, he was a heck of a defender, and he’s getting that back.”
Lee said he is still recovering from a thigh injury that kept him out for most of September.
“I’m still trying to get my legs 100 percent back,” he said. “Notice a lot of my shots are short, that means I have to get my legs back.”
But the injury has not slowed Lee defensively.
“That’s one thing I try to do every night, play both ends of the court.” he said. “Not only knock down shots but try to give something on the defensive end also. In the NBA, pretty much all the schemes are the same, a lot of pick and roll, you just need to get to know the rotations. There’s a couple different ones here that I’ve picked up on, so it won’t be too difficult.”
Seal of approval
Rondo on Leandro Barbosa, who is expected to join the Celtics for Saturday’s game: “It’s big for me, I won’t have to play as many minutes and take a toll on my body. And with Barbosa in the game, the speed is going to continue to stay the same when I go out. He can create his own shots, make plays for teammates, and also can score the ball. I think it’s a great pickup.”
Leave rest to them
Rivers plans to rest his starters in the final two exhibition games.
“This was the hardest game that they’ll play, I can tell you,” Rivers said Thursday night.
Kevin Garnett played 21 minutes against the Nets, as did Pierce, despite sustaining a slight ankle strain in the first half. Pierce leads the Celtics in preseason scoring at 16.2 points per game, totaling 47 points in 48 minutes in the last two games. Pierce is 14 for 24 (58.3 percent) on 3-pointers and 21 for 22 (95.5 percent) on free throws.
“The New York game, they already know that they’re not playing,” Rivers said. “And then, we’re getting seven days to prepare [for the season opener at Miami Oct. 30].”