Well this is unusual.
From the moment every child first picks up a basketball, he or she has one thought in mind: Shoot!
Ball movement. Spacing. Passing. All that comes later.
The first instinct is to shoot, shoot and shoot some more.
So it seemed a bit odd to hear coach Jeff Hornacek urge Courtney Lee to shoot more as the season presses on. Lee is the starting shooting guard, which, by definition, means: ‘Shoot!’
“It’s not something that I try to do,” Lee said. “That’s very new. It’s only a selective few guys in this league that the coach is telling you to shoot contested shots. Especially, like live ball, off the dribble, jab steps, all that stuff, so it’s crazy.
“But I respect it. I’d rather have him tell me shoot the ball rather than not shoot it.”
The fact is Lee is one of the select shooters in the NBA.
Going into tonight’s game at The Garden against the Lakers (6:30 p.m. MSG Network), Lee was tied for 15th in the league in three-point shooting at 41.8-percent (68-of-165).
He’s stayed hot while embracing Hornacek’s urging to just shoot the damn ball. Lee has attempted 8.7 shots per game on the season. But in the last eight games, Lee has upped that number to 10.6. He attempted a season-high 16 shots in the quadruple-overtime loss at Atlanta.
His scoring has increased from 10.2 to 13.8 points per game. He might be the wildcard that pushes the Knicks into a playoff spot.
“We’re on him,” Hornacek said. “When you’re shooting a high percentage, especially from the three-point line, some of the shots he probably doesn’t think are open, we’re going ‘Ah, he probably should have tried it and shot that one.
“We tell him, ‘Courtney, we’ll never know if you’ll go 6-for-7 or 7-for-8 in a game until you get seven or eight up.’ ”
What makes Lee’s emergence even more intriguing is that it seemingly was triggered by one of the most bizarre plays in the NBA season.
In a 113-110 home loss to the Washington Wizards, Lee passed up a last-second three-pointer that could have forced overtime. After the game, he correctly pointed out that Wizard’s assistant coach Sidney Lowe was on the court, within a few feet of Lee, and shouting as if he was a help defender.
“He fooled me,” Lee said. “I still should have took the shot.”
The NBA fined Lowe and the Wizards. Lee responded with a terrific performance in the Knicks next game, a 107-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns. He scored 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-3 from behind the arc.
“I’m just trying to be more aggressive and take those shots,’’ Lee said. “The coaches showed me film of shots I passed up, areas where I could be more aggressive. That’s all I’m trying to do.’’
Lee has always relished his role as a glue guy. And he’s especially proud of his defense. But with recent injuries to Kristaps Porzingis and Derrick Rose, the Knicks need Lee to contribute more on the offensive end.
It’s uncommon for an established NBA player to change his game but Lee has always been somewhat of a work in progress when it comes to his shooting. After the 2011-12 season, Lee was studying film when he noticed an anomaly in his shot.
“I don’t know where it came from,’’ Lee said at the time. “I was swinging the ball from my left side to my right when I shot. In the years before, I never did that. I had to get back to working on not doing it.”
Even after correcting that flaw, Lee’s shot still seems a little unconventional. As he goes into his shooting motion Lee still subtly shifts the ball from his left hand to his right.
It creates a slight hitch, but Hornacek, a 40-percent three-point shooter in his playing days, explained why Lee’s shot is effective.
“It might be a little strange the way he got into it and kind of brings it up the side [but] when he gets it to above his head there, everything is directly lined up.’’ Hornacek said. “So I think once he gets to that point, it’s great form.
“The shooting part of it is when you get the ball, you’re above your face, now you’re lifting up to go into the shot. If that elbow is straight, you’ve got good follow through, you’re going to make them.’’
Lee does make them. And he has his brother, Anthony, in part, to thank. Courtney had to find creative ways to get the ball above his head by playing 1-on-1 against his older sibling.
But once the ball got to that position by his face, the rest, as Hornacek noted, is pure shooter’s form.
“Hand under the ball,’’ Lee said. “That follow through never changes, no matter where it comes from.’’
The Knicks are expected to get a boost tonight with the return of point guard Derrick Rose. Rose has missed the last four games with a sprained ankle.
That makes this game an important one in Lee maintaining a more prominent role in the offense. The Knicks will have their three main weapons on the court.
“When you’ve got KP [Kristaps Porzingis] and Carmelo [Anthony] and Derrick out there, teams are paying a lot of attention to them,’’ Lee said. “Everybody else has got to be ready to knock down those shots.’’
Which is exactly what Lee expects to do. Like all great shooters, he has a confidence that borders on cocky.
When asked if he feels as if he’s been in a shooter’s zone lately – one in which the basket looks as big as an aluminum trash can – the 6-5 shooter smiled.
Great shooters, even reluctant ones, don’t doubt the end result.
“I feel every time I shoot it, it’s going in,’’ Lee said. “It doesn’t always work that way but I always feel the next shot is going in. You got to take them. You can’t make them if you don’t take them.’’
As he reads this, Hornacek must be smiling.