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Change in the air with Carter gone

Raptors present new challenge since trade

TORONTO -- There were times when he wasn't there. There were times, he has since admitted, when he was there, but really wasn't there. Nonetheless, when the Celtics arrive at the Air Canada Centre tonight to play the Toronto Raptors, it will be the first time since 1999 that Vince Carter won't be around to either play or watch.

Carter's former teammate in Toronto, Michael Stewart, said he still finds the whole situation "unimaginable." Carter was traded to the New Jersey Nets Dec. 17 after an oft-brilliant, sometimes controversial six years plus in Canada. He was Air Canada just in time for the opening of the Air Canada Centre. He put Toronto on the basketball map, to the point where, as Stewart recalled, "He was the biggest sports star in a hockey town, and that is saying something. He couldn't walk through a mall without his hood over his head."

He was the 1999 Rookie of the Year, beating out Paul Pierce, among others. He has an Olympic gold medal from Sydney in 2000 and he has been an All-Star fixture. When the NBA needed Michael Jordan to start in Jordan's last All-Star Game, it was Carter who obliged. He has been named to two All-NBA teams.

"When I think of Vince," said Stewart, who played with Carter for four years, "I like to think of his best days. To me, he's still one of the top five players in the league. He has it in him."

But he was hurt, much too often, or so it seemed, missing 77 games in his final four years in Toronto after not missing one in each of his first two seasons. He was on the injured list when he was traded, a fitting exit in the eyes of some. He made headlines by deciding to attend his college graduation ceremony in North Carolina on the morning of Game 7 of the conference semifinals against the 76ers.

And since the trade to the Nets, he has come out, as has his cousin, Tracy McGrady, and admitted that there were times when he didn't go all out for the purple, red, and black.

"The fact that he said that, I didn't like," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said yesterday. "I think it's bad for the league. But he's being honest, I guess. But did you really need him to tell you? Especially this year?"

Carter didn't like Toronto's situation, and over the summer, he asked to be moved. He averaged just 15.9 points a game for Toronto in 20 appearances before getting dealt. That was a career low, as was his shooting percentage (41.1). His high game was 26. The Raptors have not withered and died since the deal. They are 5-6 since then. They're concluding a five-game homestand against the Celtics tonight and are 3-1, with the loss coming to Milwaukee in overtime.

"They're definitely more committed to each other now," Rivers said. "In a lot of ways, they're better. They're a better defensive team. They go to [Chris] Bosh more. They should have been doing that earlier, but it's difficult when you have to placate Vince."

Undeniably, Carter gave the Raptors an NBA identity. He was, and still is, one of the most popular players in the league with the fans, who annually select him to the All-Star team with vote totals that would make a Chicago ward boss blush. Last year, he received the second-highest vote total ever and he has been the leading vote-getter four times.

The Air Canada Centre used to sell out almost regularly when Carter had his A game and the Raptors were a legit playoff team. In the 2001-02 season, Toronto sold out 40 of its 41 home games and had the league's fourth-highest attendance. The Raptors have had one sellout this season and are 13-22 overall, although 11-5 at home.

Asked if it was going to be weird facing a Vinceless team, Pierce, who staged many a battle against Carter, laughed and said, "What do you mean? They've got Morris Peterson. I mean, he's the second-biggest name behind Vince. He wasn't a big draw anyway. They've got Jalen Rose. What are you all talking about?"

Then, in a more serious vein, Pierce said, "But Vince was the only name. He pretty much put Toronto on the map. But him not being there, the likely tendency is to kind of underestimate them, but they've been playing well lately."

Asked about his individual battles with Carter, Pierce said, "I'm going to miss that."

He'll get a chance Jan. 21, when the Celtics meet the Nets for the first time this season. Stewart said he thinks New Jersey will rejuvenate Carter.

"He needs to get through some things," Stewart said. "Hopefully, New Jersey will do it for him."

But what is stranger, Pierce was asked, seeing Carter in New Jersey or not seeing Carter in Toronto?

"Probably not in Toronto," Pierce said. . . .
Rivers wasn't kidding about Bosh. The second-year forward was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week after averaging 20.5 points, 13 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks a game last week. He also shot 60 percent from the field. Bosh is only the second Raptor to win the award. Guess who the other was. Carter won it seven times . . . The Raptors are sixth in the league in 3-point shooting and have made at least one trey in the last 485 games. The last game without a 3 for the Raptors was Feb. 24, 1999, against Indiana. Miami holds the NBA record for consecutive games with at least one 3-pointer with 594 . . . Tom Gugliotta and Walter McCarty never got in Monday's rout of the Magic. It was the third time Waltah has been a DNP-CD this season. As for Googs, he was activated Dec. 30, ostensibly to get him some time. He has played a total of six minutes since then, all of it in the Jan. 2 loss in Detroit . . . If he were eligible, Al Jefferson would be among the top five in the NBA in field goal percentage. He's shooting 53.1 percent but doesn't have enough field goals to qualify. Mark Blount does, however, and is tied for eighth at 51.7 . . . The Celtics return home after the game for their first meeting of the season with Antoine Walker and the dreadful Atlanta Hawks Friday night. They then have a rare respite -- four days between games -- before they host the Bulls a week from tonight. 

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