The Orlando Magic have nearly drawn even with the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals--trailing just 3-2 now after a 3-0 deficit to open the series--but have done so without much help from Vince Carter, their starting shooting guard and prized offseason acquisition. The media have put him under a microscope, which should come as no surprise; less than a week into this season, M. Haubs of The Painted Area wondered if a strong showing in a deep Magic playoff run would cement Carter's spot in the Hall of Fame. The fact that he hasn't delivered much in this series, and in fact missed two crucial free throws in Orlando's Game 2 loss, has opened him to plenty of criticism. Adrian Wojnarowski blasted Carter in this column, for instance, while the front page of the Orlando Sentinel's sports section before Wednesday's Game 5 featured a headline that read "Dear Vince, Please Show Up." And, um, he didn't, shooting 3-of-10 for 8 points and once again spending plenty of time on the bench as J.J. Redick, his backup, outplayed him. TNT analyst Kevin McHale joked after Orlando's Game 4 win that he found Carter "on the mil carton in my refrigerator." You get the idea.
So he's taking a beating, and the media are exploiting the usual talking points about him: he's soft, he's not clutch, he's timid, he doesn't have a "killer instinct." And, well, yeah, there's truth to some of that, insofar as he's having a pretty terrible series, shooting 35.9% from the floor for 13 points per game. But I don't have a problem with his aggression in his series; I don't see him settling for too much. Consider that his percentage of shot attempts at the basket area (28.1%) in this series actually exceeds that figure from the regular season (25.6%) and that his work in the pick-and-roll has led to 4 assists for 9 points, as well as 9 other looks for which his teammates did not reward his unselfishness, per Synergy Sports Technology.
No, Carter's real problem in this series has been his inability to make a shot from outside the paint. He's shooting 30.4% on shots that aren't dunks, layups, or tip-ins so far in this series, including a 3-of-15 mark from three-point range. It's a make or miss league, as Magic coach Stan Van Gundy likes to say, and Carter's missing a lot of shots.
Another issue, one that I think too many people have overlooked in order to instead focus on Carter's missing shots, is turnovers. He had 11 in the first 4 games of this series before having a spotless turnover column in last night's game. Maybe it's that people have, shall we say, become accustomed to Magic wings wearing no. 15 having butterfingers, but Carter showed a remarkable ability to hang onto the ball this season: he was one of four players whose usage exceeded 25% to have a turnover rate below 9, for example. That he's struggling against the Celtics' defense should come as no surprise, given that it ranked 2nd in the league in forcing turnovers this year. So curbing the uncharacteristic turnovers will certainly help his cause. And the Magic's. Because they're the same, you know. All for one and one for all, and all that.
The best way for Carter to get back on track is to continue shooting. But the big issue is that he has to be trying the right kind of shots. Often he finds himself trying to convert off-balance shots, off the dribble, with defenders lurking. He has the right idea because he's attacking the basket slightly more often than usual, but he has to be even more assertive. Work his way to the foul line, find a rhythm, and get buckets. It really may be that simple, although the Celtics' defense certainly has a say in the process.
I look at it this way: the Celtics' defense mystified Jameer Nelson for the first 3 games before he and Van Gundy realized that keeping his dribble live and staying on the attack puts pressure on Boston defenders. If Carter figures this out, Orlando will be in much better shape than it is already. Considering that it just staved off elimination in consecutive games with Carter combining to miss 14 of his 18 shots, that's saying something.