Thoughts on the Game: Lee Can’t Make a Miracle Happen

Blink and you would have missed Courtney Lee almost single-handedly pull off a miraculous comeback for the Nets in their game against the New York Knicks last night. With about 6 seconds left, and the Nets down by 5, Lee sank a free throw, intentionally missed the next, grabbed the loose ball, hit the “and 1” to cut the score to two, missed the free throw and then came up with another loose ball and a foul, with a chance to tie the game with 1.1 seconds left.

The last time I saw so much offense is such a short amount of time against the Knicks, Reggie Miller was wrapping his hands around his throat – the universal “choke” sign – as superfan Spike Lee writhed in agony courtside. Granted, the circumstances were much, much bigger that time around as the Pacers went on their way to shocking the Knicks in the playoffs, but I think it’s only natural for basketball fans to come back to that game when you see something equally improbable happening before your eyes.

Except last night, in front of about 16,000 fans  at the Prudential Center (talks of a sellout were a wee bit exaggerated, but not by much. And Joe Jackson seemed entertained by the game during the MSG feed) Courtney Lee missed the free throw he needed to sink, and the Nets lost to the Knicks 94-92. The Nets still haven’t won yet this preseason, and they get one more shot on Friday night. Yes, the team is sorely missing Devin Harris, and to a lesser extent, guys like Keyon Dooling and Jarvis Hayes would sure help too, but the Knicks were able to pull away in the fourth playing a lineup of four rookies and Larry Hughes.

People like me, who sit at a laptop and talk about sports, tend to overanalyze and get inappropriately metaphorical during moments like last night, but I saw a lot of symbolism for the Nets upcoming season in the last 5 seconds of this game. If you read the vast majority of  previews of the New Jersey Nets this year, a common theme linking them all together is that the Nets have some nice pieces in guys like Harris, Lee and Brook Lopez, but they’re nowhere near ready for anything significant yet. What Courtney Lee was on the cusp of doing last night would have been impressive regardless of the level of competition – 5 points in 6 seconds, are you kidding me? But instead, it wasn’t his time for preseason greatness.  See where I’m going with this?  There is definitely something special to watch with Courtney Lee, but if you think he’s going to work miracles at this point in his career, you’re going to be disappointed.

What I like so much about Courtney Lee in this very short audition is he just comes across as such a mature, confident player. In the closing moments of basketball games, missing a free throw can sometimes be more difficult than sinking one, but Lee did it twice, with such calm and confidence. When it’s a play that everyone knows is coming, and you can still pull it off, that’s something special right there. There are cagey veterans who can’t pull that play off even once, no less twice. I have to remind myself that Lee has only played one full season in this league, and as a role player in Orlando, he was never really given the chance to star like he might be able to do in New Jersey.

These are the kinds of moments you look for in preseason. The stat-lines don’t tell you much, and I find this preseason has been especially deceiving because the Nets have seen so little of Devin Harris. Bear in mind that when Harris is healthy and on the court, the offense is going to all emanate through him. Do you think, with Devin on the court, it’s going to be so easy for teams  to double Brook in the post as the Knicks did relentlessly tonight, forcing Lopez into an ugly 5-18 night from the field? Does Chris Douglas-Roberts, who just continues to score and even opened the eyes of fantasy aficionados by chipping in 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals, continue to get as many touches with Devin shouldering the load on offense, and guys like Jarvis Hayes challenging CDR for minutes at the three? And what about Yi Jianlian? The past two games Devin didn’t suit up, the “Muscle Devil” went for 20 or more. He only finished with 8 points and 9 rebounds last night, but he still showed signs of overall development. In yet another, “that was Yi?” moments for me, I saw him get the ball in the right post with about 4:33 left in the third, spin around Jared Jeffries and pull a reverse lay-up with his right hand out of his expanding bag of tricks.

And as much of a nightmare as the second quarter was for the Nets – they allowed 6 of the Knicks 8 three-pointers for the night during that period – the third quarter was something to behold. After missing a few shots early in the period, Brook Lopez kicked of the scoring for the Nets with an easy deuce close at the rim from the Chris Douglas-Roberts feed, who blew by Al Harrington and drew  help defense from Jared Jeffries. Then, on the very next Nets possession, Brook took advantage of a rare instance of single coverage, posting up David Lee and converting with the baby hook from the low blocks. The Knicks were sloppy, but the Nets challenged them on defense throughout the quarter. At around the 7:48 mark, a nifty little spin move by David Lee got him close to the hoop, but Yi stuck with the play and disrupted the shot, leading to the miss.

But to go back to metaphors and overanalysis, the Nets seemed to come unglued in the fourth. While the game remained closed, the Knicks pulled ahead at the end using their “D” lineup of rookies and Larry Hughes against some Nets players who are in line for minutes this season. While it may have been nice to see Bobby Simmons get fiesty with Nate Robinson earlier in the fourth quarter, he missed three open jumpers in the closing minutes of the game and then with about 52 seconds left, got posted up and completely dominated by Knicks rookie Jordan Hill, for a basket that put the Knicks up by 5. As Lawrence Frank keeps experimenting with backups at the four, I hope he took note of that play. Then, after the Knicks lead was cut to 3 again, rookie guard Toney Douglas completely blew by Rafer Alston, got some hang time to avoid the Brook Lopez block and made the layup for, what seemed at the time, to be the final nail in the coffin. Who knew at the time that Courtney Lee was about to put himself in a position to pull off some Magic?

But now, was not the time.