Magic Will Roll -- Or Fall -- With Vince Carter
Even Magic center Dwight Howard was impressed, turning to general manager Otis Smith, who was watching from a distance: "I guess he's ready for the playoffs,'' Howard said with a nod.
Carter, 33, never has been more ready to play basketball, knowing through the next eight weeks he can redefine his career, change the perception he has fought the last 12 years, that he is nothing more than a great individual player who can dominate the highlight tapes.
He wants to be known as a champion. And he finally has the chance to do it.
After spending all his years with average or below average teams -- carving out big numbers in losing causes -- Carter is facing an opportunity to put an emphatic stamp on a career with a gaping hole on his resume.
"It's obvious. This could be a crowning moment for me,'' Carter said after Friday's practice. "I don't worry what others think, but everyone out there wants this kind of opportunity. I'm lucky enough to get it.''
Carter has scored 19,498 points -- a career scoring average of 22.9 points -- but now he would trade every last one of them for a championship ring. His least productive individual season, averaging 16.6 points and 3.1 rebounds, could be his most satisfying.
He never has been on a team this good -- or even close to this good.
"I've seen him do some crazy stuff during the regular season, but he's stepping it up a notch now. I can tell,'' Howard said. "He's been looking forward to this for quite awhile, and you can see, he can't wait to get it going. I think he and I both understand, if we win or lose, it's going to be on me and him.''
Although Carter isn't the high-flyer he once was in Toronto and New Jersey, he isn't just a role-playing veteran hanging on for a chance to win a championship. The Magic have Howard, the most dominant big man in the world, and a well-balanced attack, but they still expect Carter to dominate in stretches -- especially with games on the line.
Not only will he be scrutinized like never before, so will the decision by Magic management to retool the defending Eastern Conference champs with three new starters, none with more impact than Carter.
They opted not to resign forward Hedo Turkoglu -- a key player a year ago -- and trade for Carter instead, gambling on a player with limited playoff success in his career.
Until now, Carter never has been on a team that won 50 games, nor been past the second round of the playoffs. He hasn't even been in the playoffs for three years.
"It's still basketball. I expect to play well. It's why they brought me here, to be the player I am,'' he said. "I live for these moments. That's how I earn my check.''
Although much was made of Carter's return home to play for the Magic -- he grew up in nearby Daytona Beach -- it wasn't the place, but the opportunity to win that really excited him. The Nets dealt him to create salary cap space for this summer, along with getting promising Courtney Lee in the process.
Carter struggled early in Orlando. Instead of dominating the ball like he always had, he tried too hard to fit, and he didn't fit very well. He didn't understand how to play with a dominating center like Howard. He was dreadful in January, easily the worst month of his career.
Yet the light went on in February, finding that delicate balance between asserting his will on the game, and deferring to Howard. He grew progressively stronger.
He had 48 points in a victory over New Orleans. He had 25 -- and hit 13 of 14 free throws -- in a victory over the Lakers. He had 26 in a win against Memphis and 25 in another victory over the Knicks. He is a major reason why the Magic were 23-5 after the All-Star break.
"I know what's on my shoulders, and that's fine. I don't mind getting the attention,'' he said. "We're playing for all the marbles now, and I feel young, at least younger than my age. I'm ready for this.''
Carter doesn't jump like he once could, but he still can find his shot under pressure, which is sure to come in the playoffs. The Magic open the first round Sunday against Charlotte.
"Vince is going to be the key to us winning a championship,'' said Magic forward Matt Barnes. "Dwight will do what he does, but Vince will be the key. He's back to jumping around, dunking on people, making plays on defense. I can just by looking in his eyes. He's going to be ready for this.''