Marc Gasol fired a bounce pass to a forgotten Vince Carter along the baseline, and after Carter took a single dribble toward the middle of the floor, Rudy Gobert sent his hook shot back several feet. It was the type of depressing moment that's almost expected when a former superstar continues as long as Carter has, one of the league's foremost stars now turned its elder statesman.
Carter, though, collected Gobert's block and quickly released a fadeaway as the Utah Jazz center attempted to nudge him into retirement a second time. The shot found the bottom of the basket. So, too, would a pull-up 3-pointer in transition less than a minute later. Then a wing three off of a baseline curl would do the same. And then an impossible driving hook shot through contact over Derrick Favors the next quarter. And another three on what appeared to be a broken play, the Jazz and their eighth-ranked defense unable to contain the player once known as Half-Man, Half-Amazing.
By the end of Monday's game, Carter had 20 points to help lift the Memphis Grizzlies to a 102-96 victory. Fittingly, his final field goal of the night came on a dunk cutting baseline. On a night Carter completely turned back the clock, he almost had to cap things off with the type of play that made him the league's most must-see attraction a decade and a half ago.
That has, somewhat inexplicably, been par for the course for Carter early on in his 19th NBA season. Coming off a pair of years where his role was that of a part-time bench veteran, complete with a lack of efficiency befitting that role, expectations were low for the oldest player in the league. It wasn't even a given that the Grizzlies would hang on to Carter, who is only guaranteed $2 million of his $4.3 million salary if he's released by New Year's Eve, less than four weeks before his 40th birthday.
The NBA's 24th all-time leading scorer has looked age and the typical decline associated with it in the face this month and scoffed, treating father time like Frederic Weis and rising up over top of it for at least a few more weeks in the spotlight. Carter's averaging 10.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 27.7 minutes, his highest marks since his days with the Dallas Mavericks, and he's doing so on a torrid 60.5 true-shooting percentage and, if such measures are your thing, his highest win shares per-48 minutes and box plus-minus since his time with the Orlando Magic or earlier.
Last year, Carter averaged double-digit points in just one month, a seven-game April, and he shot above 40 percent just twice, never touching his current mark of 47.4 percent. The year prior was even worse, as he failed to average more than 8.4 points in any given month and never once shot 40 percent from the floor for an extended stretch. For consecutive years, the Grizzlies were better when Carter was on the bench than when he was on the floor (though at least he caught fire from 3-point range in last year's postseason).
In other words, it's seemed for two seasons like Carter was just barely hanging on as a player. That he was still playing, despite that, should have flipped a long-unfair narrative from his late-Toronto days that Carter doesn't love basketball or doesn't care or whatever the particular spin about his forced exit from the Raptors was. He didn't handle his departure with the same touch his feathered jump shot has held for years, but he was somewhat unjustly cast as a far greater villain thanks to a confluence of poor word choice, even worse management, and easy lines to draw (like nagging injuries or saying he no longer cared to dunk or, frustratingly, him valuing education highly enough that attending his own graduation was of exceptional importance to him, whatever the schedule conflict). In any case, Carter's twilight years should have dulled some of the earlier character criticisms, and his emergence as a fun-loving veteran presence and leader who can occasionally hop in the DeLorean has been a blast.
That's been especially true on the occasions he can get up to throw down, because it's the dunks that Carter will best be remembered for.
It's difficult to express how important the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest was (although Zach Harper did one hell of a job trying), for Carter, the NBA, and for the Raptors' franchise as a whole. While the Raptors are only now, in the last few years, digging themselves out of a far-too-long post-Carter malaise, and without his ascension to the top of the sports world's consciousness, there's little telling where the Raptors would have gone.
If nothing else, there's a generation of new Canadian basketball talent that grew up on Carter's Raptors (and Steve Nash's MVP years), and it seems every second or third Dunk Contest has an homage to the greatest performance ever seen in that event. Speaking personally, it was my first exposure to the NBA after a lifetime, to that point, of playing and thinking hockey year-round, and the post-dunk Vinsanity years made a fan of me for life (with a hat-tip to the 2004-05 NHL lockout). There's good reason to believe that Carter is responsible for a fair number of at least the older segment of current Raptor fans, as well as the trickle-down that comes via second-generation fans. And again, maybe someone else or something else or the sheer force of the awesomeness of basketball get us to this point, anyway, but Carter's early-career mastery will remain inextricably linked to the Raptors.
That Carter is somehow finding the fountain of youth to start the year couldn't be better timed, either. In a season in which the basketball world is coping with the retirements of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan, we have Carter, Paul Pierce, and Dirk Nowitzki as the last vestiges of the previous generation of stars, the group that today's adult fans grew up on. Carter hasn't necessarily "outlasted" those other names, given how he shifted roles while Bryant, in particular, clung on to the identity of his peak, but only three active players have played more games than he has, and only three have scored more points.
Said differently, this is an actual highlight that exists:
The Jazz weren't the only team to come up on the wrong end of Carter's early re-breakout. He dropped 18 against the Washington Wizards in the third game of the season, and the Jazz game was his fourth in a row with double-digit points and came less than a week after he hung 20 on the unsuspecting Denver Nuggets.
Hopefully, Carter can continue the hot streak for at least three more games. He's set to do battle with Pierce and the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, Nowitzki and the Mavericks on Friday, and most fittingly of all, budding Canadian star Andrew Wiggins, who has named Carter as his idol and who appears ready to finally take up the mantle as Canada's next basketball icon, and the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday.
Carter's 24th in all-time scoring, 24th in all-time games played, and somewhere close to first in all-time highlight reel dunks. For the last few games, he's gotten to play the part of flashback episode, cutting, shooting, and dunking his way to big nights as if he were still ten years younger, still donned in purple, and still bringing the attention of an entire country to the sport of basketball. If he can keep it up for just a while longer, what could be his final visit to Toronto is set for Nov. 30, where an Air Canada Centre crowd will be waiting to welcome him back sweetly. Until he heats up one last time.