Carter's departure greeted with indifference

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:01 AM ET

It was as if Vince Carter had never existed. On the first day of Raptor life at the Air Canada Centre without him, there wasn't a sign, not a peep, no demonstrable symptom that anybody was in pain that a franchise player had been erased.

How often has the trading of a star of Carter's magnitude been greeted with such indifference?

SYMBOL OF FRUSTRATION

Perhaps that's because the guy who has been wearing No. 15 for the past three years bore no resemblance to the kid who took this city by storm as a rookie. Recently, he has been little more than a symbol of frustration, an unwelcome reminder of what he once was.

Anyway, he wasn't in the building for Toronto's victory over New Jersey and most people said 'What else is new?' In his stead, seven players scored in double figures, just the way coach Sam Mitchell likes it.

Now, he has been replaced by a couple of no-nonsense blue-collar dudes who will fit right into Mitchell's philosophy. The Williamses -- Eric and Aaron -- won't be on display until tonight's game in Houston but their presence won't alter the workmanlike approach that produced yesterday's 11-point victory.

All this game proved, if anything, was that the Raptors without Carter in his present state of mind are better off than the Nets without Eric and Aaron Williams.

The long view, though, is something rather different. Carter used to make a Raptors game something special. He was one of the biggest stars in a league that venerates its stars. Even now, the perception elsewhere (though clearly not within various NBA front offices) is that Carter is a guy you can put on the marquee, a guy many people will still spend $200 a ticket to watch.

It will be interesting to observe how that plays out in New Jersey, a stone's throw from Manhattan, where stars who fail to live up to expectations are chewed up and spit out.

Will Carter, who has become a jump-shooting perimeter player the past few years, once again fly to the basket? Can he still fly to the basket? Or is he too beaten up? If the folks in Jersey haven't been paying attention and are looking for the guy who owned the NBA all-star dunk-a-rama, they might be horribly disappointed.

In the same vein, Mitchell's lunch-pail approach will give plenty of other players a chance to step up and contribute, but the highlight reel stuff that is the league's bread and butter, will have to come from some other team.

How that will affect interest locally in this market is tough to gauge. It is a suspicion that fans will embrace an unselfish, big-hearted team with the will and determination to win the close ball games by playing tough, if ungraceful, basketball.

Nobody should hold up yesterday's game as typical of what we can expect. Normally, it will be much harder than this. The Raps took advantage of an undermanned Nets team that was short on defensive intensity. Toronto had one good look at the basket after another and kept draining its shots. Against better teams, the Raptors won't get nearly as many open looks.

It seems only yesterday that Mo Peterson was a rookie. Now he's the longest-serving Raptor. He stepped into the starting lineup and drained 20 points but he still doesn't know what to expect.

"This is my fifth year and I've seen a lot of different things," he said. "You just have to roll with it. This is the NBA and anything can happen."

The notion that hard work and team play can be just as rewarding as the high-flying style he experienced when he broke in isn't lost on Peterson.

"We have to play hard," he said. "The way things are in the East, a team with a .500 record could win the division."

Everything Peterson said is true. As ridiculous as it sounds, a .500 record could win the division and get a top-three spot in the conference playoff seedings.

WON'T BE PRETTY

It is not an outrageous thought that a team that shows up night after night with an unwavering, unselfish work ethic, no matter how modestly talented, could get the job done in the Atlantic Division.

However it plays out, it's not going to be pretty. But winning ugly is better than the alternative.


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