Raptors really let Carter, Nets have it

TORONTO -- Fans weren't permitted to wear their "FUVC" t-shirts inside the Air Canada Centre for Game 1 of the first round NBA playoff series between Toronto and New Jersey Saturday. But there was no muting the sentiment directed toward former Raptors-prodigy-turned-Nets-ne'er-do-well Vince Carter.

Number 15 was booed before he set a sneaker on the court. He was ripped mercilessly going through layup drills during the warmup. He was jeered in the pregame introductions. And once the game began, each time Carter got within spitting distance of the ball, he heard it as if everyone in the building was directly related to Frederic Weis, the former Knicks "prospect" Carter hurdled without aid of a trampoline at the 2000 Olympics.

Maybe that explains why Carter shot an atrocious 26 per cent (5-of-19) from the field and why he picked up his third and fourth fouls by the 9:30 mark of the third quarter. For most of the game, the guy who was supposed to be the Nets' mightiest menace was all but a complete nonfactor, unable to finish drives to the basket, unwilling to impose his own passion on a game that would've meant the world to anyone else in his situation.

Funny thing was, in beating the Raptors 96-91, the Nets didn't need him.

Their chief difference-maker was Richard Jefferson, who on his own was far more than Toronto could handle. And they had a perimeter "D" that forced Toronto into impersonating Madame Tussaud statues for the better part of the first three quarters.

They were also patient enough to let the Raptors beat themselves. To wit: rookie Andrea Bargnani looked like a little lost lamb, and finished with three points. Point guard T.J. Ford was his typical helter-skelter self, alternating between catalyst and catastrophe. Ditto for Joey Graham, the last remaining vestige of the Carter trade, who put up anorexic numbers (four points and four boards) in the biggest game of his up-and-down NBA career.

Elsewhere, usually-reliable lockdown artist Anthony Parker blew a defensive assignment that led to an easy Carter layup with less than two minutes remaining (and the Raptors within winning distance), and was blasted by coach Sam Mitchell for the error.

Rasho Nesterovic, Kris Humphries, Morris Peterson and Juan Dixon combined for just 12 points. That's not the type of secondary scoring that helped secure the home court advantage Toronto has now squandered.

There were a few positives for the home side. Bosh, the emerging superstar who embraces responsibility and a leadership role with the same ferocity with which Carter shirked it, was the driving force behind the Raptors' in-vain fourth-quarter comeback and finished with a team-best 22 points. If Chris Bosh hadn't landed in foul trouble early in the first quarter and been limited to 9:55 in the opening half, this could've been a much different game.

As well, backup point guard Jose Calderon, who posted 13 points and eight assists, made a very good case for replacing Ford in Toronto's starting lineup. But even the Spaniard wasn't immune to a painful, public brain cramp or two -- most notably, when he drove to the basket and kicked the ball out to guard Darrick Martin. (The pass would've been fine, except for the fact Martin was sitting on the bench and there wasn't an on-court Raptor within 10 feet of him.)

That said, those Raptors fans who hold out hope for a turnaround by depending on "ifs" and "buts" would be wise to keep in mind the Nets didn't have anywhere close to an ideal game. Far from it.

Star guard Jason Kidd had 15 assists and 10 rebounds, but bricked shot after shot from the floor and ended the afternoon 3-for-11. As well, New Jersey shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc -- a significant downgrade from the 36.3 percent they averaged during the regular season -- and got not much from their bench players other than Nachbar.

Ultimately, Game 1 proved one thing: If the Raptors intend on playing in the second round for just the second time in franchise history, they'll have to focus every ounce of their energies on all of the Nets, not just Carter.

They'll need to contain forward Bostjan Nachbar, who led all bench players with 16 points. They'll have to get tougher with Mikki Moore, the workmanlike Net who had a workmanlike game (nine points and seven boards). And they'll need an answer for New Jersey's superior transition game, which often had Toronto clumsily chasing their collective tail like a dog with a bad case of vertigo.

Most of all, they'll need to forget the storyline their fans aren't about to let slide. Vinsanity vs. An Entire City may make for compelling copy and talk-radio fodder, but it's not the showdown that will settle this series.

Adam Proteau is a writer for the The Hockey News. He can be reached at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.