EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When the pounding music stopped and stunned fans swallowed their cries, all that was left for Vince Carter were the jeers.
He held his hands in front of his face, trying to pass the shock of the moment by pleading with an unsympathetic Dick Bavetta for a reprieve that wasn't coming. But the drained and pleading look on Carter's face betrayed his protest, the look in his eyes more of defeat than defiance.
At times like these, it's not easy being a star.
It was a chance for a beautiful finish to another ugly Eastern Conference playoff struggle, a low-scoring, poor-shooting, emotion-filled grinder that only purists and the winning team's fan base truly love. Under the hot lights and millions of eyeballs, Carter found himself in the situation the NBA playoffs were created for Monday night.
It was the bedrock of an instant classic: his team down two points, his number called in the huddle, his game to win, lose or extend.
"It was a two-man game between Jason [Kidd] and Vince with the floor space," Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "You put your best player in position to make a play."
That's what Frank and then Kidd, tossing the ball to Carter at the elbow with about eight seconds lefts, did. Carter caught the entry and felt the arm of Cavs guard Eric Snow on his back. A wily and gutty veteran, Snow is the Cavs best defender and has been called on in this situation repeatedly all season, be it Dirk Nowitzki, Chauncey Billups or, on this night, Carter to deal with. But he is no star, which is why the focus was still all on Carter.
First he tried going past Snow, but there was no room and no time. As he tried to change direction, Cavs guard Larry Hughes forgot about Kidd and came sprinting over. Perhaps it was seeing Hughes, perhaps it was feeling the dwindling click, perhaps unsteady hands and a Snow swipe in an unsteady time. Whatever happened in that moment, the ball came free and Carter had fumbled away a chance at being a hero. So to, the Nets' chances of upsetting the Cavs in this series.
The 87-85 win put them up 3-1 in the series heading back home.
Carter's turnover ended another rough night for the Nets' star. He got his 25 points, but the harassing Cavs defense and some unkind bounces on the rim saw him make just 6-of-23 shots. It seems more than an anomaly now, he's shooting just 34 percent in the series and has been unable to be a difference-maker the three tight finishes.
Monday he had nine assists, his most ever in a playoff game. That movement out of the Cleveland double teams won't be remembered as much as his 1-of-7 shooting in the fourth quarter and the inability to even get an eighth shot off. And he knew it.
In all honestly, there was so much more blame to go around. Kidd was just 2-of-13 shooting, Richard Jefferson just 3-of-12 as the Cavs buckled down with some of their fast-becoming-trademark playoff defense.
Yet still there was trust -- maybe even expectation -- that Carter had one big play in him that could even the series and maybe send the emotionally unstable Cavs to the ropes.
It was a weight Carter carried after the game, where he took on the same weighty blame as his cousin, Tracy McGrady, did a week before.
"They put the ball in my hands to make plays," he said. "That one I take hard. It's on me."
It wasn't as if his opposite number, LeBron James, had carried the torch. He missed two jumpers and a key free throw in the final two minutes that could've changed Carter's destiny. But James had 30 points on just 16 shots in the game with nine rebounds and seven assists along with swarming Jefferson, making him the evening's star. Averaging 27 points, seven rebounds and nine assists for a team that's 7-1 in the postseason, James late-game slip barely will get mentioned.
As for Carter, some feisty Nets fans sneered at him, slamming his car with plastic Thundersticks as he drove out of Continental Airlines Arena and into a dark Jersey night.
It isn't easy being a star.
Brian Windhorst covers the NBA for the Akron Beacon Journal.