Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Half Man, Half a Bad Pun

As a rule, I try not to draw conclusions from regular season games. In an 82 game season, it’s important to look at overall trends, and not get caught up with singular blemishes, especially since even trends can be misleading as far as playoff success. However, there are certain regular season games that can teach us about the bigger picture. And last night, a seemingly insignificant game, with a seemingly insignificant result, blew open the Eastern playoffs race.

New Orleans 117, Orlando 123

The Magic needed a huge comeback from 17 down to barely beat a borderline playoff team without it’s best (by far) player, it’s starting 2 guard, and it’s starting center (Emeka Okafor played only 9 minutes because of foul trouble). And yet, I feel like this is the game that raised Orlando from “still a contender but need a couple of lucky breaks and/or some serious soul searching to pull anything off” to “STILL A CONTENDER”. Why?

Vince Carter.

I a rare performance usually reserved for players who don’t wear undershirts and aren’t scumbags, Vince went off for 48 points on an array of threes, mid range jumpers, and drives. The type of performance that makes you forget that Vince has been disappointing everything that moves for the past 12 years and say to yourself “man, maybe he can still get it and amount to something?”

There was something else about last night, though. It wasn’t just the 48 points, the 19 for 27 shooting, the inability to miss, or the fact that his shot was so smooth that most of his jumpers didn’t even touch the net on their way down, let alone the rim. Vince always had the ability to explode, even if it was nowhere to be found so far this entire season. But last night’s Vince scored within the flow of the game. He didn’t force shots, give or take a heat check or two: He drove to the rim, he got open looks of double teams and screens, and when it didn’t work he moved the ball. In fact, despite his offensive explosion, his most impressive move, to me, was a beautiful behind the back pass when posting up, finding Matt Barnes for a layup. Which was fitting, because at his best, Vince is an all-around offensive dynamo, and not just a volume scorer.

And perhaps most importantly, his teammates were actually looking for him. And it wasn’t because Stan Van Gundy drew up a play. It wasn’t like the January Boston game, where Vince was the go-to-guy on the last play, but every player on the floor and every single viewer at home knew he was going to mess things up, before J.J. Redick was luckily unable to find him, gave the ball to Rashard Lewis, and Shard sank the game winner. No. They were looking for him because they knew he was going to win the game. And for all the Xs and Os, basketball is a game of instinct, a game of feel. A feel that was missing to this Magic squad since Hedo Turkoglu left the team.

I supported the de facto Vince-for-Hedo move, because Vince is a better player than Hedo. He’s a better scorer, a better defender, a better rebounder, and can be effective on offense without the entire game running through him. Talent wise, this deal was a total wash for the Magic. But with Vince, it was never about talent, it was about the intangibles. It was about fitting in. And the intangibles were terrible. The chemistry was non existent. Vince has shown nothing of the qualities that made him one of the best players in the NBA, instead showing the qualities that denied him from playing any meaningful games in his career. Forcing shots, disrupting team play, showing no effort what-so-ever, and ultimately, underachieving. When January came to an end with Vince averaging 8.7 points per game on 28 percent shooting, I was surprised that Vince was THAT bad, and I knew he couldn’t possibly get any worse, but having watched the games, it made sense. He was just awful.

Well, for 3 of the past 4 games, culminating on Monday, he played like Vince should play. And the Magic need that Vince. With bad Vince, they are not winning the title. No way. With good Vince? Anything can happen. So yes, maybe the regular season doesn’t mean anything. Maybe last night just gives Vince motivation to take even more bad shots, and hog the ball, and make every basketball fan shake with rage whenever he takes the court, before finally shutting down for the season because of a stubbed toe. And history shows that will probably happen. To be completely honest, if I had to place a bet, gun to my head, I'd say that in three months I probably look back at this post in sorrow as Vince struggles to multiple 4-17 nights in the playoffs. But last night shows that it’s possible. Good Vince is in their somewhere. We can only hope he’s alive come May.


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