Work in Sports
Sprewell shuts down Air Canada
Posted: Monday May 01, 2000 12:00 PM
By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated
TORONTO -- When Latrell Sprewell came out for the opening tap of Game 3 on Sunday, he turned to Vince Carter, raised an eyebrow and unfurled a sly smile. It was less a display of taunting or machismo than a gesture of respect, and Carter responded in kind. "It was just my way of saying, `Here we go again,'" said Sprewell. "He was going at me and I was going at him and it's tough to stop the other guy."
Say this about the wonks in the NBA's scheduling department: They know a compelling matchup when they see one. Though the Knicks swept aside Toronto like lint on a lapel, the mano a mano between Carter and Sprewell -- a big reason for this absurdly protracted first round -- was Must See TV of the highest order. Matching the other shot for shot, contortion for contortion, the league's prodigal son and its Boy Wonder salvaged what was otherwise a slogging, foul-addled eyesore of a series with a breathtaking dual. For the better part of three tightly fought games, Sprewell and Carter effectively played a high-stakes game of one-on-one, at times reducing their teammates to onlookers. "It was like an old-fashioned shootout," said Toronto forward Antonio Davis. "It was just a question of who'd be the last guy standing."
In four regular-season games against the Knicks -- three of them decisive Toronto victories -- Carter shot 60.2% from the floor and averaged 33 points. After Carter torched him for 33 points on Feb. 23, Sprewell was so humiliated that he darted out of a side door at Madison Square Garden rather than face the media. Yet in the maiden postseason series for both him and the Raptors franchise, Carter was held to just 30% (15-for-50) shooting and averaged just 19 points. Sprewell's battle cry may as well have been: Veni, vidi, Vince-I.
So how did Sprewell ultimately prevent Air Canada from achieving cruising altitude? For one, he took a page from the Jordan Rules and tried to displace Carter from his comfort zone in the post before the ball arrived. After watching untold hours of tape, Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy determined that Carter was less effective going to his right and positioned Sprewell accordingly. Further, knowing that Carter salivates like Pavlov's dog at the slightest aperture, Sprewell played up on Carter and relied on his teammates to provide succor when Carter drove past him. "I wanted the challenge of playing Vince," said Sprewell. "But stopping him was a team thing."
Perhaps most important, though, Sprewell made Carter labor like a helot on the defensive end. One of the league's toughest covers, Sprewell plays with boundless energy and is in a state of perpetual motion. Chase him for four quarters and it's easy to see how you could lose the legs on your jumper as the game progressed. But guarding Sprewell exacted a psychic price on Carter as well. With Sprewell firmly entrenched as New York's go-to player, it was incumbent on Carter, never mistaken for a defensive stalwart, to provide his team with key stops. As Sprewell scored basket after basket, Carter's confidence took a beating. Consider the fourth quarter of New York's 84-83 Game 2 victory, the series' fulcrum. Sprewell scored 13 points, including the decisive jumper with 7.8 seconds to play. Carter, meanwhile, shot 1-of-5 in the quarter and passed up a chance to win the game. "That's what you hope for when you make a guy work on the other end," said Sprewell. Carter's response? "Playing defense doesn't hurt my offense," he said, before pausing. "At least that's what I tell myself."
In retrospect, it would have made more sense for Toronto to put Tracy McGrady on Sprewell and let Carter conserve his energy by defending Allan Houston, a rhythm shooter who stays primarily on the perimeter. "I thought about [making the change]," said Toronto coach Butch Carter -- who, at the risk of incurring a libel suit, was thoroughly outcoached by Van Gundy. "But in the end, our matchups were what they were."
In the end, the Sprewell-Carter matchup was what it was: great theater. But also further confirmation of an age-old NBA truism: Particularly come playoff time, older basketball heads often trump younger legs.