BOSTON — No one could ever tell how much Courtney Lee was struggling by looking at his face.
The veteran two-guard was invariably the same every day during his year and a half with the Boston Celtics: always smiling, typically optimistic and outwardly confident, even in the midst of the most challenging stretch of his career.
Lee was back Wednesday to take on the Celtics at TD Garden. Things are much better for him now, ever since last season’s midseason trade that sent him to the Memphis Grizzlies. He’s playing for a legitimate championship contender and putting up statistics consistent with his career norms. But you wouldn’t know anything is different by talking to him.
“I just looked at it as a learning experience,” Lee said of his time in Boston. “I’ve been through a lot of highs, a lot of lows, and it just goes along with it. I think it tested my character as far as showing I’m still going to be a professional. Still coming into work every day, still talking to the media with a smile on my face. I think I did that. I learned from that year and a half I was here.”
What Lee learned, he’s applied successfully with the Grizzlies. Despite Wednesday’s 95-92 loss to the Celtics, the Grizzlies are one of the top teams in the Western Conference, led by Most Valuable Player candidate Marc Gasol. Lee is averaging 10.4 points per game and hitting 43 percent of his 3-point attempts, both closer in line with his career marks after two down seasons spent mostly with the Celtics.
Positive developments like those were why Lee wasn’t ashamed to admit he was “happy” in hindsight about being shipped to Memphis in last season’s three-team trade.
“You can use ‘happy,'” Lee said. “There’s no bitter feelings toward Boston or anything like that. It was just what it was, the situation at hand. When you get a trade and you know you’re going to a better opportunity in a better situation for yourself, you’re going to be happy about that.
“That’s just like getting a transfer and a pay raise, right? You’re going to be happy about that.”
Asked if he’d gotten a raise as a result of the trade, Lee — in the third year of the four-year, $21 million contract he signed with the Celtics in 2012 — responded in the affirmative.
“Yeah,” he quipped, “no state taxes.”
Whether players are “good” or “bad” get treated as absolutes, but that’s far from true. The right fit often is as big a determinant of success as inherent ability, something Lee is showing now. He didn’t suddenly get worse when he signed with the Celtics and he didn’t magically get better again when he was traded to the Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies had needs in roles Lee filled, whereas under Doc Rivers and Brad Stevens, the fit was never quite right.
“That’s all it is, whatever situation fits you best,” Lee said. “Here (in Boston), we had guys that could shoot, we had playmakers and whatnot, and in Memphis they needed guys that could help stretch the floor, guys that could play both ends of the court. That was my calling. It was just a better fit.”
Lee is still smiling in Memphis. Only now, he actually means it.
Thumbnail photo via Elise Amendola/Associated Press