Wednesday May 19th, 2010

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Half-man, half-amazing looked 100 percent human.

As Tuesday bled into Wednesday, Vince Carter spread his arms wide, put a hand on either side of his locker and stared at something inside. Maybe the Magic guard only sought his deodorant, but he looked more like someone peering into a pit, searching for a bottom that might not be there.

Less than an hour earlier, Carter's eyes were wide as dinner plates. He stood at the free-throw line -- the same line at which Nick Anderson stood 15 years earlier, when Carter had just finished his senior year at Mainland High an hour away in Daytona Beach. Carter came to the Magic in a trade with the Nets this past offseason to bring his home-area team a championship, to make Orlando forget Nick's bricks, the four consecutive missed free throws that cost the Magic the first game of the 1995 NBA Finals and gave the Rockets the momentum they would need to sweep Orlando into a 14-year exile from the Finals.

Carter's free throws wouldn't have won the game Tuesday. The Magic trailed by three with 31.9 seconds remaining, but two makes and a stop would have given Orlando a shot to beat the Celtics and head to Boston with the Eastern Conference finals tied at one.

Carter missed them both.

The Magic lost 95-92. The Celtics, it should be noted here, are 32-0 in seven-game series in which they've taken a 2-0 lead.

Which brings us back to Carter, standing in his locker with a school of microphone-wielding sharks circling, smelling blood. Carter had to feel naked. Probably because he was naked, save for a towel. Carter slumped in his chair with a thud and began his dressing ritual. He rubbed lotion into his hands and feet. Then he slowly pulled on his clothes. Knights going into battle probably dressed this deliberately. Carter needed armor, considering the inquisition he would face.

Finally, Carter left the safety of his swivel chair and spun around. We sharks advanced. After a few pleasantries and half-hearted, homeriffic attempts by several local reporters to spin a nearly insurmountable deficit into a positive, someone broached the subject of the free throws.

"They bring me in to make plays and deliver in crunch time," Carter said. "For me to step up there and miss two free throws -- it just doesn't sit well with me."

Then someone mentioned that Carter was an 84 percent free throw shooter this past regular season. "Don't remind me," Carter said.

Then someone asked if Carter had intentionally missed the second in an attempt to salvage points for the possession. "I wish I could say yes, but ..." Carter said, his voice trailing away.

For most of his career, Carter has been painted as a supreme talent who plays for a paycheck, who doesn't care enough to lead a team to a title. Plenty of people in Toronto believe he deliberately tanked his final season there. No matter what happened in the past, Carter certainly cares now. His anguish was obvious early Wednesday morning as he flayed himself open to give the sharks the blood we craved. For that, he deserves respect, no matter what happened at the free-throw line. He also doesn't deserve all the blame. J.J. Redick took several costly dribbles instead of calling timeout after grabbing a rebound before Orlando's final desperation heave. But Carter will get lion's share of the blame because Redick is young, and Carter is a veteran with a $16.3 million salary.

Carter scored 16 points in 25 minutes Tuesday. Center Dwight Howard, maligned after being contained by single coverage in Game 1, scored 30 points that included 12 free throws in 17 tries. Redick came off the bench to score 16. It wasn't enough.

In a way, the Magic are like Carter -- a tantalizing amalgam of skills that doesn't include that final, crucial piece that makes a star a superstar or a very good team a great one. The Celtics have that piece. It lives in the hearts of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. The Lakers had that piece last year against the Magic in the Finals. It lived in the heart of Kobe Bryant, who simply would not allow his team to lose when it mattered most.

If that piece lives inside a Magic player's chest, it has yet to manifest itself. Now would be the time. Down 2-0 and shipping up to Boston, the Magic are in danger of getting dropkicked out of these playoffs quickly.

The toughest part about Tuesday's loss for the Magic? They actually did well by coach Stan Van Gundy's pre-game instructions. 1. Dominate the effort game. 2. Defend our asses off. 3. Take care of the ball. 4. Hi (sic) energy/Move the ball.

The Magic accomplished most of that. The Celtics just did all of it better. "Our mistakes need to be few and far between," Carter said. "You have to play near-perfect to beat them, because they're playing at a very high level."

That realization made the Magic locker room a very different place after Tuesday's loss than after Sunday's, which snapped a 14-game win streak. Van Gundy swore after game one his team "doesn't have to prove they can bounce back from adversity and all that crap." After game two, Van Gundy just swore. "A lot of screaming," said Rashard Lewis, who took six shots and scored five points. "But at the same time, he was right."

By the time Van Gundy left to deliver his postmortem to the media, the weight of the deficit had set in on the Magic locker room. "We've got to face reality," backup center Marcin Gortat said. "We're obviously in a deep hole right now."

A hole as deep as the one Carter seemed to peer into as he searched for the words to describe one of his most brutal moments as a player. His teammates say they understand the misses. "He's human," Gortat said. "He can miss."

But Carter is only supposed to be half human. The other half is supposed to amaze.

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