Posted Dec 25 2009 9:43AM
It wasn't simply a layup. That's the part that sometimes gets overlooked in describing the mid-air, off-balance one-foot bank and the breathless instant that could have changed NBA history.
With six-tenths of a second left in regulation in a tied Game 2 of the 2009 Finals and the Magic trying to even the series against the host Lakers, Hedo Turkoglu lofted a pass from out of bounds at the top of the three-point arc extended to Courtney Lee near the basket. The lob, from the right side of the court to the left side of the rim, was perfect and so was Lee's use of a Rashard Lewis pick about 18 feet from the hoop to get behind defender Kobe Bryant. Momentum carried Lee toward the baseline as he caught the ball with both hands, shifted it to his right for the release while nearly under the backboard and released it at an awkward angle, making sure it was hard enough to clear the reach of Pau Gasol.
The Magic lost in overtime, turning what could have been a 1-1 series as it shifted to Florida into an insurmountable 0-2 deficit that became a 4-1 victory for the Lakers and a catapult into 2009-10 as favorites to repeat. In that flash of time, destinies were potentially altered. Soon, Lee's life would likewise change dramatically, with the June 25 trade that sent him to New Jersey as part of the Vince Carter deal in a move that sent him from a conference champion that remains in the title picture at 22-7 despite big roster hits because of injury and suspension to an organization in transition and a team with the worst record in the league at 2-27.
What the miss meant to the course of the Finals is pure speculation. What it meant to Lee is only now becoming clear, though, after the loss could have put the Lakers in much more of a precarious position in a competitive series, after his basketball world was flipped, after people stopped asking all the time about the miss. Especially after people stopped asking.
"It definitely drives you," he said.
The layup that wasn't has become motivation to get back to the biggest stage again. It also, perhaps unexpectedly, became a character test, to see how a 24-year-old, second-year player who went from relative unknown as the 22nd pick in the 2008 draft to an important part of the Magic success would react to being shoveled with grief.
"I've seen it 10 or 15 times at least," Nets interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe said. "That was not just a layup. That was a very difficult shot. Anybody who's tried a shot like that, it's not just, 'Oh, I'm just gonna lay the ball in.' And to me, the great thing was when he got the shot, he made an athletic move to get the shot off and, second, he was willing to take it. That's what impressed me. I think that's the type of kid he is. He's a great kid."
"It shows a lot of character," Lee said. "You put any other person in that situation, it could crush their career. But I looked at it as something that's going to motivate me throughout the years. I had an opportunity to play at the highest level, in the NBA Finals, against one of the best players. I look at it as motivation from now on.
"Once you've been in that situation I was in and just knowing that we could have won the game in the NBA Finals, it definitely motivates you to get out there and continue to work so the next time you have the opportunity, whether it's in the regular season or in the playoffs or if in the Finals again, I know for a fact that it's going to go down."
His life has been such constant motion since June that digging in for the response has been difficult. There was the fateful championship series that included shooting 37.5 percent while wearing a protective mask to protect a fractured sinus suffered in the first round, the trade that surprised him, the relocation to New Jersey after thinking he would have a long stay in Orlando, the strained groin that cost him seven games, and the season-opening 18-game losing streak.
This is no way to build toward redemption, and this certainly is no place to do it this season, with the Nets as the object of their own special version of ridicule. Not that Lee has a choice.
His measureable impact has been 11.5 points and 38.9 percent from the field in 22 games, 17 as the starting shooting guard, after 8.4 and 45 percent as a rookie in the same role with the Magic. At least people aren't still bringing up the Finals, a topic that eventually passed and then went away for good once the new season made fresher wounds for people to poke. He remembers, though. Mostly, he waits for the next opportunity with the game in the balance in the ultimate series as the ball heads his way, because that one won't miss. Courtney Lee considers it fact.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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