This morning as I went through my daily ritual of reading as many NBA-related articles as I possibly could, I noticed that Andrei Kirilenko’s name was mentioned quite a bit. The 6′9″ Utah Jazz forward has been out of action since March 26th with a strained calf, and the rehabilitation process had taken a bit longer than expected. The combination of some encouraging practices, and the Jazz trailing the Los Angeles Lakers 0-2 in their series, led Kirilenko to declare himself fit and ready to go for game three.
In one article I read, Carlos Boozer praised Kirilenko’s abilities and mentioned that he had been sorely missed the last month and a half. Even Kobe Bryant acknowledged that, in a limited capacity, Kirilenko still had the ability to cause some match-up problems for the Lakers.
But there was one quote about Kirilenko made by Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan that jumped off the page more than the others.
“We just hope we can get some minutes somewhere along the line and give us some help,” Sloan said. “We’ll take anything we can get. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
I read that quote and immediately I shoved Kirilenko, Sloan, and all things Utah Jazz-related aside. Instead, I decided to thrust two prepositional phrases with Vince Carter’s name in the sentence to see if it would hold true.
“We just hope we can get some minutes out of Vince Carter somewhere along the line and give us some help. We’ll take anything we can get from Vince Carter. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
I have spoken to Magic coach Stan Van Gundy several times during his visits to D.C., but I’ve never asked him about Carter’s inconsistency. But if I did, that’s the answer I imagine him giving me.
By now, you know that Carter put on quite an offensive display in the Orlando Magic’s 112-98 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. He scored 20 of his 24 points in the second half, as the Magic took control of a previously tight game, and he did it in every way imaginable. He hit mid-range jumpers; he hit three-pointers; he scored on dazzling lay-ups; and he wouldn’t be Vince Carter if he didn’t throw down some emphatic dunks as well.
At one point Carter drove down the lane, jumped, remained in the air under the defender came down, and then gently shot the ball with one hand, for an “easy” two point basket. Shortly after ESPN replayed that amazing shot, Bethlehem Shoals of FreeDarko.com, via his Twitter account proclaimed, “That shot by Vince they just replayed was totally Dr. J”
But as good as Carter looked last night, and as integral as he was in his team’s victory, that type of focus is not there each and every night. In fact, if someone were to ask me if Vince could score 24 points a night for the rest of the playoffs, my answer would be two-fold: Talent-wise? Yes. Attitude-wise? I don’t know; we’ll have to wait and see.
In the first half of Thursday night’s victory, before the second half explosion, Carter had just four points on four shots, and he looked content to play the passive role. He passed up open shots, and the few shots he did take, seemed to always be off-balance. He made no attempt to draw contact and get to the foul line, which is when he is at his best. Sure, Dwight Howard was in the midst of a monster half, and Jameer Nelson was playing well, but Orlando was trailing most of the half and Carter and his game were missing in action.
Prior to this current series, there was Game 3 of the Magic/Bobcats series when Carter scored just 10 points, as his team eked out victory. Carter shot just 4-of-11 for 10 points and he had virtually no impact in the game. Even that performance was better than the one he produced in game one of that series, when he played 30 minutes, shot 4-of-19, scored 12 points and fouled out of the game.
I am quite sure someone is reading this article and saying to themselves, “Orlando is winning all these games. Who cares if Carter isn’t consistent? It doesn’t matter.”
Oh, but it does.
First off, Carter plays for Stan Van Gundy, who must be a perfectionist because he’s never happy–even after a win. So Carter has to contend with him after a bad performance.
Secondly, assuming the Magic get past the Atlanta Hawks, they will have to play either the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Boston Celtics. Both teams have strong post defenders who can neutralize Howard, and it will be up to Carter, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson to wreak havoc on the perimeter. Nelson has been doing his part by averaging 22 points this post season–10 points more than he averaged during the regular season. Lewis has yet to find the shooting touch that was crucial to the Magic’s success during last year’s playoff run. A consistent Carter would offset Lewis’ struggles and only make Nelson that much more potent.
And finally, Carter has a career playoff average of 24 points a game, which means he is capable of playing like an All-Star nightly, as opposed to once or twice a series.
This isn’t an average player who is being asked to play great. This is a great player who seems to content to play average. If he aggressively drove to the basket, he would take pressure off of Howard, free up Pietrus, Lewis and Nelson, and the Magic would be impossible to stop on the defensive end. Van Gundy could bring in four bench players, give his others starters an ample amount of rest, and allow Carter to run wild. But that doesn’t seem to be possible for Carter–it’s always “wait and see” from one game to the next.
Tonight the Jazz will face the Lakers in Utah, and Kirilenko will finally be back on the floor with little expected of him except a good effort. Tomorrow night, the Magic will face the Hawks, and Carter will be fresh off a monster second half, and sadly, little will be expected of him either. The Magic will just hope to get some minutes out of him and somewhere along the line, give his team some help. They’ll take anything they can get from Vince Carter. They’ll just have to wait and see.
I’m hoping I’m wrong.