BOSTON — Courtney Lee saw Hakim Warrick running out in front of the pack, with nothing but open court between the Bobcats forward and the hoop, and thought to himself: I’m faster than this guy.
Just as Warrick went up for a would-be dunk, Lee, as he has many times this season for the Celtics, sprinted in and slapped the ball away. It was not a game-changing play in itself, since the Celtics already led by double digits in what would become a 100-89 victory, but it continued the theme of the Celtics’ current home stand. Even when the Celtics do not completely outplay their opponent — as on Monday, when they squandered numerous double-digit leads to the lowly Bobcats — they have outworked them.
For Lee, that effort is about more than protecting their now-six-game win streak. Effort to Lee is all about pride, even if it rarely shows up in the box score.
“I take it back to just life, period,” Lee said. “I didn’t have the best childhood and just continued to fight. It’s that same philosophy on the court. Something might not always be going right, but you can always give effort, and effort takes no talent.”
Lee’s chase-down block and nine points off the bench took a deep backseat to Rajon Rondo‘s 17 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. Yet Rondo’s third triple-double of the season came in motivated spurts, whereas the Celtics as a whole were inconsistent. Celtics coach Doc Rivers went with a super-small, though extremely quick, lineup consisting of Rondo, Lee and Leandro Barbosa for a good part of the fourth quarter because that trio brought more energy than any combination that had been on the floor for Boston.
Nobody on the Celtics was particularly happy about the way they got their sixth straight win. Although the Bobcats never led, they repeatedly wiped out large leads to pull within one or two possessions. They even forced a tie early in the third quarter, just eight minutes of game time after falling behind by 18. Some let-up was to be expected for the Celtics, who probably did not come into a matchup with the nine-win Bobcats carrying the same motivation as they did against Eastern Conference contenders Atlanta and Indiana. But that let-up came way too close to defeat several times for the Celtics.
“You always don’t like it, and I think [Monday] was a definite let-up,” Rivers said. “I thought the Houston game [Friday] was, as well. But these are other NBA teams and they’re going to keep fighting and making shots. When they do, it’s nice that we can catch it instead of losing those leads and then losing the game.”
It is old home week in Boston, apparently. All that stands between the Celtics and a perfect five-game home stand is a Rivers family reunion Wednesday against the Hornets and a get-together with former Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls on Friday. That could make it eight straight victories with two winnable road games to follow against the Pistons and Cavaliers, heading into a rematch with the Knicks.
A run like that would put the Celtics right back into the race for one of the East’s top playoff spots, but that required a win against Charlotte first. Lee and the Celtics, taking each game one at a time, had to fight to avoid the dreaded “trap” game.
So after Barbosa missed a running bank shot and the Bobcats took off in transition, Lee did not put his head down. Starting from the opposite corner, where he had been spotting up for a 3-pointer, Lee ran back just behind a pack of Bobcats as Warrick glided toward the hoop. Just as Warrick went into his pre-dunk strides, Lee hit the jets and dashed in for the block, bringing a roar from the crowd and an emotional reaction from Boston’s bench.
“It was big for us, keeping our streak going on our home stand,” Lee said. “We had a big lead but we let them come back. That’s something we’ve got to continue to work on. We can’t continue to let that happen, but we were able to execute down the stretch, get stops and score. Overall, it was a good effort, but like I said, some of those things, we’ve got to work on.”
One area needs no work, at least not for Lee. The Celtics have players with more talent, but as long as Lee is on the floor, he will never give up on a play.
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