After losing 17 of 18 games in February and March, the Toronto Raptors had sewn up the NBA's "Most Disappointing Team" award for this season. A team many had picked to come out of the Eastern Conference wouldn't even be coming out for the playoffs. Then Vince Carter -- the team's ostensible star, its heart and soul -- opted for knee surgery on March 26 (he's out for the regular season, at least). Would the misery ever end in Toronto?
The misery, as it turned out, ended that very day. Since Carter went out, the Raptors have won a franchise-record nine straight games.
This winning streak is a slap in Vince's face. Are the Raptors a better team without their most talented player? I don't know the answer to that, but the evidence is troubling.
Sunday's win over the Pacers vaulted Toronto ahead of Indianapolis in the race for the East's final playoff spot. Then, on Tuesday night, the Raptors defeated the Hornets to strengthen their position.
This strange performance begs lots of questions. Who are the Raptors? The losers of 17 of 18 games or the winners of nine in a row? And what is Vince Carter's role on this team? Which says more about Carter: being around for all of those losses or being out for all of those wins?
Losing 17 of 18 in today's NBA is nearly impossible, especially for an Eastern Conference team. That kind of performance, with a Hall of Fame coach like Lenny Wilkens watching, is mysterious. Given the Raptors' talent, they should have won a couple of those games just by accident. And if Carter was hurt during that stretch, he should have done what Michael Jordan did: have the surgery quickly and try to get back in time to help his team make the playoffs.
By the same measure, let's not go nuts over winning nine straight in the Eastern Conference. Making the playoffs in the East this year really isn't that big a deal. If the season ended today, the East's top team (the New Jersey Nets) would be the fifth seed out West. The East's final playoff team could have a sub-.500 record.
The streak consists of victories over the Cavaliers, Wizards, Heat, Hawks, 76ers, Bulls twice, Pacers and Hornets. The Philadelphia, Indiana and Charlotte wins are the only impressive ones -- and the Sixers didn't have Allen Iverson. Still, that's nitpicking. The Raptors pulled themselves out of that horrible slide, after their big gun went down. Their next game will be a real test -- it's an instant rematch with the Pacers on Wednesday in Indianapolis.
The three remaining home games for the Raptors are the Hawks, Nets and Cavs. The two away games are at the Pacers and Bucks. If they beat the Pacers and finish 2-3, they could make the playoffs at 41-41. If the Pacers lose three of five, it's still possible -- only 10 days after being unthinkable.
But what's really unthinkable is Vince Carter's role in all of this (because the rest of the team is talented, though not perfect). Alvin Williams is an underrated player. Antonio Davis is a great player with loads of playoff experience. He's been around. Keon Clark is good but nowhere near how good he could be. Morris Peterson has been OK as well. These guys aren't the Bulls or the Grizzlies.
This winning streak is a slap in Vince's face. The team comes alive when he goes out? That has to be troubling. The team is spreading the ball around. They're not waiting around for Vince. The guys know they can do something with the ball rather than wait to see what Vince has.
Are the Raptors a better team without their most talented player? I don't know the answer to that, but the evidence is troubling. I think it's hard to say it's a coincidence that they've won without him.
It seems to me that Carter lacks the very thing that defines Iverson's greatness. You can call it guts or toughness or courage or heart.
There is talk that Carter might come back if Toronto makes the postseason.
But I wouldn't do it. If I were Vince Carter, I'd watch the playoffs -- particularly the games played by the Philadelphia 76ers and Allen Iverson.
It seems to me that Carter lacks the very thing that defines Iverson's greatness. You can call it guts or toughness or courage or heart. But Iverson wants the ball in pressure situations. The opposition pretty much knows he will have the ball in pressure situations. Yet he wills his team to victory. He has no regard for his body, especially when the stakes are high. After a Sixers loss, there's never any doubt Allen Iverson gave his all.
The same cannot be said about Vince Carter right now. He became a jump shooter this year. He doesn't get to the line as often as he should. He drives to the hoop only in TV commercials or on uncontested breaks. All of which is fine. He can be the player he wants to be. He has a $94 million contract. He can tell himself it's a team game.
But I'd watch Iverson over the next few weeks if I were Carter. Because, yeah, it is a team game. And it's a lot more fun to be on a team with guys like Iverson.