EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Sometimes, Vince Carter leaves everyone believing that this is the spring, that these are the playoffs, when his greatness will come rushing back on the sport's biggest stage. These Eastern Conference playoffs could be the most important of his life, a chance to redeem the standing that he had lost in the sport, a chance to prove all over again the genius of his game.
Carter hasn't been good for the Nets this year. No, he's been great. He's been the old Carter, the dominant Carter with the spins to the basket, the windmill dunks on people, the 3-pointers from so deep. He's been the winning Carter, the North Carolina Tar Heels legend who lifted the Toronto Raptors long before they crumbled around him.
"How many times in the fourth quarter has he made critical shots, gotten to the line, tipped the ball, done something to turn the game for us?" Nets president Rod Thorn marveled. "He's been sensational."
He has something to prove again. Mostly, that he's a winner. Dean Smith guys don't get the tag that he earned with the Raptors, didn't cop to quitting when things had gone bad there. Well, Carter did. It's something that Carter still has to undo, even with 1½ brilliant regular seasons with the Nets. Validation comes in the playoffs, comes when it's Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal in the Eastern Conference semifinals this spring.
The Nets are on a collision course with Miami. No one is expecting the Nets to beat Detroit in the conference finals, but after the way the Nets have mistreated Miami this year, the way that Carter has gone for 51 and 43 points on the Heat in two of his team's three victories, you know that Carter can make a statement in that series.
Yes, the Heat shut him down a year ago. Eddie Jones played him well one-on-one, but deposed coach Stan Van Gundy was constantly bringing a second big player to his side of the floor, cutting off the angles for Carter. Richard Jefferson had just come back from a broken wrist, and Nenad Krstic was nowhere near the force he's become offensively. Yes, Carter had a lousy series. Too many bad shots, too many misses.
Now, everything has changed. Jones is gone, Carter has help and Riley can't be sleeping well now.
Carter been nothing but a model citizen with the Nets, but don't underestimate the importance of Jason Kidd's presence to Carter's revival. Kidd holds teammates accountable on the floor, holds them to his own standards of genius. When Kidd thought that Carter was getting a little too self-centered for a game or two last season, he called him out in public without calling out his name.
Everyone knew, though. Most of all, Carter knew. He snapped out of it.
With a full season together, Carter has learned to play with Jefferson. And Kidd? Well, that's easy. That's the easiest thing in the sport. Kidd has been so good for Carter, the way Carter has been for him. Until Carter arrived, Kidd wanted out of Jersey. He wanted out of an organization that let Kenyon Martin go. Yet, it was losing Martin for those No. 1 draft picks that allowed Thorn to make the Carter trade with Toronto.
Now, the Nets are on the brink of 50 victories, on the brink of a conference semifinal series with Miami, and you can see Vince Carter getting loose for an opportunity that he's waited several years to get for himself. Validation comes in the spring, in the playoffs, and it won't be long for him now.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His new book, "The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty", is available nationwide.