SAN ANTONIO — David Lee is learning the climate in his first season with the Celtics. He is going to have to make the most of his minutes. There is little time to adapt, so he has to make an immediate impact.
Lee started the Celtics' first three games — two of those losses in which the starting lineup struggled — and has come off the bench the past 16 games. After averaging 20 minutes in the first three contests, he is playing 14.5 off the bench, a limited slate in which he isn't accustomed.
Lee, who did not play Saturday night against the Spurs because of a right heel contusion, said he's intent on maximizing his opportunities.
"That's all I can do, is be ready to play 25, 30 but realize that's not going to be the case most nights," said Lee, who is averaging 6.9 points as a reserve. "I can choose to be frustrated by it or I can choose to make the most out of my time and make a positive contribution and find a way to do it in different ways.
"I don't know where it's going to be, but I know I'm going to be aggressive and I'm going to play with energy. That's what I'm going to focus on."
So that's why Lee is immediately attacking the basket or playing aggressive defense against players such as DeMarcus Cousins. After starting last season with the Golden State Warriors, Lee was sidelined early with a hamstring injury and then relegated to a reserve after he returned. He remained a reserve throughout the Warriors' title season.
"That's the adjustment I learned to make last season," he said. "There's no going out there and playing relaxed or playing passive. It's has to be aggressive. And I see myself when I step on the floor as the most aggressive guy of the 10 guys on the floor because I don't know how long I'm going to be out there."
Lee stressed during the preseason that the Celtics' strength was their depth, and players should prepare to maximize their minutes. It has pretty much worked out that way with coach Brad Stevens having to juggle five big men into four slots.
"I don't accept [it], it's very frustrating, and the moment you start to accept it is when [you've] kind of stopped trying," Lee said. "While Coach can make any decision whom he wants to start or bring off the bench, my goal is to be a guy who's playing 20, 25 minutes, and I've had a meeting with Coach and told him that.
"And that's no disrespect to any other big [man] we have. But as a player I think everybody wants to play more and that's just having confidence in your own game."
Lee said he met with Stevens a few weeks ago and asked the coach how to earn more playing time, expressing his desire to be a bigger part of the rotation.
"He respects that I went and talked to him," Lee said. "You know to go to your coach and say, 'Hey what do I need to do better? How do I try to earn more minutes?' It's not how can I get more minutes to get better stats or to get more attention, it's knowing I could help the team."
The Celtics are unusual, a team of equally skilled players.
Tyler Zeller, like Lee, started early in the season before being relegated to the bench. Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger emerged as starters and Kelly Olynyk also has been fighting for playing time.
"I have not been in a situation like this, or a situation where five bigs are trying to play, five capable bigs," Lee said. "There's been times where it's been frustrating for every single one of us. But most importantly, we've got to find a way that whoever Coach plays, to outplay the other team's bigs. However it works out, there's not one selfish guy on this roster."
Back to old self
Sullinger wasn't himself in Thursday's 114-97 win over the Sacramento Kings in Mexico City. Sullinger complained of an illness before the game and told Stevens he would give all he had, but he visibly wasn't himself.
"I just didn't feel good, I was sick," he said. "I could barely move out there. Coach told me he was going to play me in short stints and even in those short stints [it was tough]. I just couldn't move out there. I feel way better [now]."
Sullinger played 14 minutes and scored 6 points with 4 rebounds and 4 fouls. He missed both of his 3-point attempts but did collect a big steal that led to an Avery Bradley dunk.
Pop admires Stevens
Gregg Popovich will be the US Olympic basketball coach following the 2016 Summer Games and Stevens has intimated he would like to be on Popovich's staff. The Spurs coach hasn't made any annoucements but has high admiration for Stevens.
"I've only known him since he came in the league, so it's not like I've known him forever," Popovich said. "He's just somebody I respect. I enjoyed watching his teams play when he was in college. Thought it was a great choice by Danny [Ainge] to bring him in. And since he's been in, he's done a great job. But what I do on my time or his time talking is our business, nobody else's."