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Vince Carter’s clutch defense has been spectacular

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The old man gets it done when it matters most.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

At this point in his career, the 2018-19 preseason expectations for Vince Carter were that he’d be a lot closer to Half-Player, Half-Coach than Half-Man, Half-Amazing. A few months later, it couldn’t be any clearer that that assumption was incorrect, as Carter has been a consistent and influential member of the Atlanta Hawks’ rotation throughout the year.

On both ends of the court, the 42-year-old been an important part of the success the club has had this year. It’s not just Carter’s leadership in the locker room and the effect he can have on his teammates with his wisdom and knowledge; he’s as much a part of the team as anybody else and is able to back up everything he’s telling his teammates with his play on the court.

Carter is averaging more than 16 minutes a game, a low for his long and storied career, but he’s been very effective during his time on the floor. Two-thirds of his shots come from behind the three-point line, the highest ratio of his career, and he’s nailing those shots at a very respectable 39 percent clip. His 57 percent true shooting is the best of his career, though obviously he’s in a much different role than he was earlier in his career. Additionally, offense is up across the league; in his early years in the league, the value of the three-point shot wasn’t nearly as apparent as it is to us today.

The offense has been relatively consistent for Carter this season. He’s almost entirely a three-point shooter at this point (and a very good one, at that), with some flashes of his other skills. He’ll get into the post here and there against a smaller defender. Every so often, he’ll forget it’s 2019 and go up for a dunk or soaring layup over an unsuspecting defender. The photos that show him holding the ball above the square of the backboard aren’t edited from years gone by; he can still get up there if you give him a lane to the basket. The frequency isn’t what it used to be, but don’t forget about Vince or he’ll bring it down on your head.

The other side of the court has been more of a roller coaster. Unlike his floor-spacing role offensively, defense requires a lot more of his waning athleticism to show up on a possession-by-possession basis. And, well, it’s difficult for a veteran with a lot of tread on the tires to consistently hang with players half his age. Watch Carter play defense and there are a lot of tactical fouls, a lot of blow-bys on the perimeter, a lot of single-effort plays that don’t turn into the double-effort plays needed to continuously play defense at a high level. It’s not his fault; it’s just the way it is throughout much of the game for a player of his age and experience.

When things get close and the possessions start to really matter, however, Carter can turn back the clock with the best of them. The Hawks have been very good in the clutch this year (defined as a five-point game with five or fewer minutes to play), posting a +8.4 net rating in these minutes, good for the ninth-best mark in the league. Carter has been a huge part of that success; their net rating in crunch time skies to +10.6 when he’s out there and his largest effect is on the defensive end, where they give up a measly 94.4 points per 100 possessions, nearly three points better than when he sits.

The difference between Carter’s clutch defense and the other 43 minutes each night could be starker. He’s an entirely different player in those spots, able to defend the very best players in the world to a near draw and generally make their lives incredibly difficult. His impressive individual defensive rating in the clutch is not a product of him sharing the floor with great defenders around him who can make up for his mistakes; a lot of times, he plays as though he’s the best defender on the floor for the Hawks.

In a mid-November game in Los Angeles, it was Carter who took the challenge to guard LeBron James down the stretch of a very close one-point loss for Atlanta against the Lakers. James had his typical game, with 26 points, seven boards, and four assists, and the Lakers outscored the Hawks by 22 points in the 34 minutes he played on that Sunday night.

Nobody stops James on their own (it even took the two-man combination of Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to build this horrible Lakers roster), but Carter was the primary stopper against James in the closing moments and did a wonderful job on the game’s greatest player.

On both of the above plays, James cleared out the offense to go directly at Carter. Both times, Carter stonewalled him, not giving up an inch, and forced James to kick it out to one of his teammates. As a result of Carter’s strong play in these spots, the Hawks were able to mount a comeback that fell just short when Trae Young’s running floater met Tyson Chandler’s fingertips on the final play of the game.

More recently, he was tasked with an assignment that would have been completely foreign to the shooting guard version of Carter from his prime years in the late 90s and early 00s: guarding the other team’s center.

It was just one possession, but it was the most important possession of the game, and Atlanta head coach Lloyd Pierce went to Carter against Karl-Anthony Towns, who had been torching the Hawks all game, on the final possession of regulation. As expected, Minnesota involved Towns in the action, bringing him up to set a ball screen on DeAndre’ Bembry and work the two-man game with Derrick Rose. Instead, Carter blew up the entire play, pushing Towns far higher than he wanted to go and giving Bembry the chance to skirt under Towns a couple times before Rose’s running floater fell way short.

On Monday night against Miami, it was again Carter who came up with the biggest defensive play of the night, when he stripped Kelly Olynyk and knocked the ball out off the Heat big man’s leg to give the Hawks another chance to tie the game. It didn’t work out for Atlanta in the end, much like it didn’t against the Lakers in November, but it doesn’t take away from what Carter was able to do in those final moments.

We often focus on the aggregate in basketball and across all sports. It’s more instructive to look at as big a picture as possible, to gather as much data as possible before making a decision about a player or team, to let the small sample size fall away to discover the true nature behind certain numbers. However, the fact is that clutch moments can almost never have a large enough sample size to say anything definitive about them.

Is Vince Carter one of the league’s best defenders? Absolutely not, and you couldn’t really even make a coherent argument that, overall, he’s an above-average defender. But when the Hawks are in a close game and need a stop, it’s often Carter on whom they call to get the job done.