In this morning's Orlando Sentinel, columnist George Diaz expressed a sentiment I know a lot of Orlando Magic fans share: the team is fatally flawed against teams like the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, which can single-cover Dwight Howard in the low post with a minimum of fuss. Diaz writes:
The Magic don't have any players who can break down a defense by going one-on-one, unless Vince Carter steps into a Hot Tub Time Machine and it's 1997 all over again.
Without one, they won't have a prayer of beating the Celtics or the Heat in a playoff series.
Some Magic fans are fond of saying "In Otis we trust." Some of the most skeptical ones may be saying "Otis, what were you thinking?" after Orlando's slumber party in Miami last Friday. Everybody except Dwight Howard fell asleep.
Diaz, as I said, isn't alone. CBSSports' Ken Berger said essentially the same thing after that bummer of a beatdown by Miami, and both men cited this quote from Magic coach Stan Van Gundy:
"Against a good defensive team we have trouble a little bit. We don't have — and this isn't to put down anybody in our locker room — but we don't have the great one-on-one players. We don't have [Dwyane] Wade and [LeBron] James and Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant."
What the Magic do have is Carter, who was coming off a season in which he averaged 20.8 points, 5.1 boards, and 4.7 assists--All-Star-caliber production, to be honest--when they acquired him in 2009. And, rather significantly, he got a plurality of his offense that year in isolation--that is, in one-on-one--situations, at 21.3 percent. But that season, with the New Jersey Nets, may indeed represent his final campaign of such sustained productivity. To call Carter's first campaign with Orlando "uneven" is to be charitable, although he at least impressed me with his performance from February to April. And, when called upon, he did show flashes of his former self in getting big baskets at key junctures, even outside that timeframe. We explore that topic in detail after the jump.
On November 20th, Carter led the Magic with 26 points, albeit on 10-of-29 shooting, in a road win against the Celtics. Indeed, the raw numbers don't look pretty, but we must consider context: Dwight Howard was a non-entity on offense, and though Mickael Pietrus and Rashard Lewis did an admirable job banging in their open three-pointers (they combined to go 6-of-9 from beyond the arc) the Magic had to rely on Carter to get them clutch buckets. Which he did. He hit a tough turnaround jumper from the left baseline over considerable pressure from Paul Pierce to break a 78-all tie and give Orlando a lead it wouldn't relinquish, which proved to be the biggest basket of the game. And two possessions prior, he drove into the teeth of Boston's defense and converted an and-one opportunity.
Five nights later, Carter drilled a deep three-pointer against Miami to give the Magic a 98-95 lead with 14 seconds to play. The Magic lost the game when the Heat converted offensive rebounds into baskets on their next two possessions, sandwiching two consecutive missed free throws by Jason Williams. If Michael Beasley hadn't dunked in Dwyane Wade's miss at the buzzer, Carter's remembered as a hero here. And he finished second to Williams on the team in scoring, with 22 points on the night.
On February 8th, Carter turned in a performance for the ages--what may ultimately be remembered as his finest in a Magic uniform--when he dropped 48 points on the New Orleans Hornets. And while "48" is the number from that game foremost in our minds, we ought not lose sight of the number "17," which represents what Orlando's deficit ballooned to early in the second half before Carter took over with a remarkable display of drives to the basket and difficult, yet on-target, jumpers. 34 second-half points for Carter, on 13-of-17 shooting from the floor. New Orleans' defense isn't great, clearly, but nobody scores an efficient 48 in this league without doing a lot of things right.
Carter's biggest, high-profile Magic success came in a Sunday matinee as the Magic hosted the L.A. Lakers in a Finals rematch. Carter, brought in expressly for his offensive prowess, set the tone by scoring 15 points of the Magic's 31 first-quarter points on 2 shot attempts; he went a perfect 10-of-10 from the foul line, leveraging Ron Artest's aggressive defense against him. Carter faded in the second and third quarters, settling for fadeaway jumpers as the Lakers sent extra defenders at him--his around-the-back escape dribble followed by a drifting jumper, which he clanked off the front iron, as Pau Gasol left the paint stood out in particular--but he did score 5 points in the final 5 minutes, with Orlando ultimately prevailing by two.
March 24th proved to be another evening in which an improbable, game-ending jam by an opponent overshadowed a key trey from Carter. The Magic trailed the Atlanta Hawks by 13 midway through the fourth quarter before clawing back, and Carter's deep three-pointer from straightaway tied the game at 84 with 9.9 seconds to play. On the Magic's previous possession, he took advantage of Atlanta's poor pick-and-roll coverage and drove the lane for an authoritative dunk, setting the stage for his three-pointer. As we know, the scoring was merely academic, as Josh Smith pounded home Joe Johnson's off-the-mark offering over Matt Barnes' solid defense for the last good memory the Hawks have of a game involving Orlando.
In the Magic's Game One loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, Carter led the team in scoring, with 23 points on an above-average 55.7 percent True Shooting mark. Oft cited is the fact that he scored 11 points in 57 minutes during Orlando's two victories in that series, as if that fact proves the Magic are better off when he stinks, or something. In its four losses, he scored 17.8 points per game on 50.9 percent True Shooting. The efficiency isn't great, no, but it's not awful, either, and the team certainly needed the volume.
The above instances are specific examples, so let's take a broader view: Carter played 13 games last season against the Celtics, Lakers, Charlotte Bobcats, and Milwaukee Bucks, who, along with the Magic, ranked in the top five in Defensive Efficiency last year. Against those teams, Carter averaged 19.5 points per game on a reasonably efficient--given the competition--54.3 percent True Shooting mark, crossing the 20-point barrier 8 times. Further, he was roughly as aggressive in those games as he was on the year, earning 0.294 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt against the defensive elite, versus a 0.301 ratio overall. I know the playoffs left most everyone with a sour opinion of Carter, but it's hard to support the idea that he didn't bring it against tough competition last year.
I don't present these examples and facts as definitive proof that Carter still has his "mojo," as it were. They're just the foremost instances of Carter generating offense in key situations during his time in Magic pinstripes. Put another way, they merely suggest that he still has it in him. And before Orlando pulls the trigger on a trade for another shot-creating wing--which seems likely if its trend of failing against the league's stiffest defense continues--GM Otis Smith needs to re-evaluate what he has with Carter. The Magic's next game against an elite defense is slated for November 24th, a rematch against the Heat. If Carter can get buckets against a defense featuring either Wade or James on the ball, with the other sliding over to provide help off it, then perhaps his hometown team can afford to keep him around. The Magic organization, from Smith down to the players, wants Carter to be VINCE CARTER, in all capitals, after all.