Vince Carter has to play the game of his life in Game 3

By: 05.21.10

Call me an apologist, an optimist, a dick-rider, whatever. But I have to disagree with Dime’s Daniel Marks: I think Vince Carter can shake his reputation as a crunch-time choker and overall soft player.

All he has to do is play the game of his life tomorrow.

With the Orlando Magic facing a death-certificate deficit should they lose Game 3 in Boston (8:30 p.m. EST, ESPN), this is a must-win for the team, and for Vince, a must-dominate. Whether he recaptures what he had that February 2010 night against New Orleans where he dropped 48 points on 70 percent shooting (19-of-27) mostly jumpers, or duplicates what he did in November ’08 in Toronto, shredding them for 39 points, 9 boards, 6 dimes, the game-tying three to force overtime, and the buzzer-beating dunk in OT to win it, Vince needs to perform the way he’s always been capable of performing on the big stage.

Can he do it? The fact that, even as a huge Carter fan, I can’t definitively answer that question tells you a lot about his career. I’m not dumb enough to ever claim Vince isn’t clutch, but 12 years into his pro career at 33 years old, he’s never been one of those guys who can just pull 40 out of his pocket whenever he feels like it. As talented as he is, Vince is a rhythm player, not a stubborn leader. If his jumper isn’t falling or it just doesn’t seem like his night, he’s not going to force greatness like Jordan or Kobe; he’ll settle into just playing his position and salvaging an “OK” game. Which is commendable in a way, because not everybody on the basketball court should be trying to be the hero all the time.

But in this case, the Magic need Vince to force greatness.

Orlando can’t rely on Dwight Howard to carry them offensively. Dwight is the franchise superstar, but he’s a defensive player. As much as everybody gives him grief for not being Hakeem Olajuwon, I can accept Dwight’s game. He’ll dominate the glass and change the game on defense. Whether he gives you 12 points or 28 points is just extra gravy. Jameer Nelson is a streaky shooter. And odds are Orlando isn’t going to get much from Rashard Lewis. So it’s on Vince to carry his squad wherever they’re going to go.

While VC’s biggest critics have plenty of ammunition in the tank to argue why he won’t come through under pressure, it’s not too late to change that perception. Championships go a long way in erasing bad memories.

Consider that Oscar Robertson didn’t win his first ring (and last) ring until he was 33 years old. Before that, Oscar was basically the LeBron James of his era: undeniable talent, insane numbers, racking up individual awards left and right, but always with that big zero hanging over his head while Bill Russell and Willis Reed cemented their legacies with championships. But after winning it all in 1971 — even if Oscar wasn’t even the best player on his team at the time thanks to MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — nobody questions Oscar’s stripes anymore.

Vince Carter can still do that. He can be Oscar. He can be John Elway. He can be A-Rod. If he puts up a monster game to nullify his Nick Anderson re-run, if Orlando finds a way to get back in this series, get to the Finals, and knock off a Lakers team they’ve proven they can beat, Vince’s career gets a fresh coat of paint. Years from now, when we’re putting together all-time rankings of the game’s best two-guards, you’ll see that Vince had over 20,000 points (he’s currently at 19,498), that he was probably the best athlete to ever play the most athletic position in the sport, and, as we like to say, “He got a ring.”

If that happens, Vince Carter goes down as a certain Hall of Famer, rightfully sitting next to legends like his talent should have warranted all along. He will go down in history as one of the greatest. But only if he’s great tomorrow.

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