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Warriors tougher with Lee

Former Knick adds a missing ingredient

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 23, 2011

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Underappreciated and undervalued in New York, David Lee is trying to bring an East Coast mentality to a market notorious for its laidback, carefree disposition.

The Golden State Warriors have never been known as a franchise that exudes toughness or much desire defensively, especially under former coach Don Nelson, who injected excitement with an up-tempo offense but seemingly forgot what happened at the other end.

They showed little effort in stopping their opponents, which is why Nelson is enjoying retirement in Maui after new owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber bought out the final year of his contract. That defensive transformation is centered around Lee, a lunch pail forward who spent five seasons with the Knicks, averaging nearly 12 rebounds per game his final two years.

Lee consistently gave the Celtics headaches during his tenure in the Atlantic Division and he scored 17 points and had five rebounds in last night’s 115-93 loss to the Celtics. While he is a relentless rebounder with a nifty post game, he doesn’t bring glitz or allure to a franchise, so the Knicks moved the former Florida standout to Golden State in a sign-and-trade last July.

Indirectly, Lee is one of the primary reasons the Knicks were able to sign Amar’e Stoudemire in the offseason and acquire Carmelo Anthony from the Nuggets. Anthony Randolph and a 2012 second-round pick acquired from the Warriors were part of the Anthony deal.

Had the Knicks signed Lee to a lucrative extension years ago, the salary cap space would not have been available to bring in Stoudemire and Anthony.

That point isn’t lost on Lee, who was averaging nearly 16 points and 10 rebounds before last night’s game.

“I think everybody I played with is now out — they definitely shook things up,’’ he said. “It remains to be seen what it will do for this season but I think in years to come it will be easy to get guys to want to play with Carmelo and Amar’e. They rolled the dice and did some different things.

“Actually, having me re-sign [in New York] might have made the Carmelo thing easier because we had a deal almost done a few times for me to go to Denver. If I had been there, it would have probably taken fewer players.’’

Lee’s value is unquestioned around the NBA, and the Warriors sought his defensive prowess. They agreed to send three players to New York and sign him to a six-year, $80 million deal to bring some of that Eastern Conference flavor.

So far the transition has been slow. The Warriors are 27th in points allowed and 22d in rebounding. Coach Keith Smart has acquired players such as Lee, Charlie Bell, and Dorell Wright, who were solid defensively with other clubs.

It seems the Warriors were too enamored with the fast break to realize it wasn’t resulting in overall success. Lee hasn’t put up the numbers he did in New York, but playing with shooters such as Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry will reduce his attempts.

The Warriors aren’t looking to slow down the ball and beat teams, 85-80, but they have to provide some type of defensive resistance while using their younger, fresher legs to speed past opponents.

The Celtics hadn’t won here since 2003 because they got caught up in those running games. Last night they showed the Warriors how to defend, allowing 33 points in the second half.

“It’s been an adjustment and I’m definitely in a different situation where I’m here with two guards who are unbelievable scorers, so it’s been a change on offense for me,’’ Lee said. “It’s been a lot easier playing when you have guys around you that can really play basketball.

“It’s been some adjustments but I’ve been very excited with our team and how well we’ve been playing. Our defense has been better as of late but at this point, we’re not at that [Celtics] level on defense. As we go from being a good team, a competitive team, to hopefully a great team, that’s something hopefully we’ll be able to improve in.’’

Lee revived his brewing rivalry with Kevin Garnett, who had noted Lee as one of those workhorse forwards he respects. That’s high praise from a player who doesn’t generally laud opponents. Lee had a run-in with Kendrick Perkins in the first quarter last night, and each player was assessed a technical. In 17 prior games against the Celtics, Lee averaged 14.4 points and 10.5 rebounds.

“I’m not intimidated by any of those guys,’’ said Lee. “Maybe my rookie year you see Kevin Garnett and you said, ‘I’ve seen those guys on TV before.’

“But now it’s to a point that I respect his game, I think he has respect for me. The thing that I really do respect about him is that he brings that intensity every single night, especially on the defensive end.

“Bringing that physicality for 82 games is tough, and he accomplishes that.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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