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Carter shows hes no fallen star yet

It was only two years ago that Vince Carter was on top of the planet, right up there with Kobe Bryant as the best perimeter player in the NBA on a team that seemed to be on the rise.

Seems like a long time ago. Bryant and Carter's cousin, Tracy McGrady, now are the rage, with high school phenom LeBron James waiting in the wings. Carter is the oft-injured star of the Toronto Raptors, an all-but-forgotten name on one of the league's forgettable teams. Is he still in the league?

Carter, 26, made more news at the All-Star Game by giving Michael Jordan his starting spot at the last minute than with his play. Knee injuries have sidelined him for 62 games in the last three years and robbed him of the springs that make him one of his sport's special players.

Healthy again Ñ or at about 95 percent, according to coach Lenny Wilkens Ñ Carter was somewhere between solid and spectacular Wednesday at the Rose Garden, knocking down 9 of 13 shots in a 21-point, 33-minute performance. Still, it was an embarrassing stop in Portland. The Blazers toyed with Toronto, shooting 64.1 percent against a team ravaged by injury and undertalented at all but two positions.

'Losing sucks,' Carter said as he sat in the visitors' locker room long after the game. 'Nobody wants to be on the bottom. If I would have been able to be out there more this year, we wouldn't be in this situation.'

Critics question Carter's heart. Some suggest that he doesn't want it as much as Bryant or McGrady Ñ even that he sat out more games than he needed to this year.

'People act like I go out there and try to reinjure myself on purpose and sit out 33 games,' Carter said, his voice rising a notch. 'I hate that. I don't even like to go out of games sometimes. I love to win. I love success, and I want to help bring success to this team.'

McGrady and Bryant both average more than 24 shots a game. Carter averages about 17 attempts and 19.9 points. Some say he should take on more of the burden for the Raptors.

'I am just trying to play within the means of the offense,' Carter said with a shrug. 'I'm not trying to do too much, not trying to put up 20 or 30 shots a night. The way this team is built, it's not necessary.'

Carter claims it doesn't bother him that he has fallen from grace with some NBA fans who once considered him the best.

'I'm not here to determine who is No. 1 or 2,' he said. 'I'm here to do what I love to do and get this organization to the playoffs, and hopefully one day win a championship. I'm not here to prove to anybody that Vince is better than everyone. I have never been into that.'

Carter is in the second year of a seven-year, $93 million contract that calls for him to earn $17.265 million in 2007-08. He is unhappy with the losing but not unhappy with the franchise.

'I love the city, love the people, love what the organization is trying to do,' Carter said. Management has 'proved to me they are trying to get the right guys in to win a championship,' he said. 'That's all I'm looking for.'

It will be a long time coming in Toronto, even with a healthy Carter.

FINAL STEP: At 24, Indiana power forward Jermaine O'Neal is a two-time All-Star, the best player on an Eastern contender and a 20/10 scorer/rebounder. Coach Isiah Thomas says the former Blazer is something else: a contender for the Most Valuable Player award.

'Jermaine is a legitimate MVP candidate,' says Thomas, an NBA All-Star in the first 12 of his 13 seasons as a player. 'With his maturity and growth as a player, people should definitely be talking about him in those terms. Does he still have a way to go? Yes, he does, but that's a good thing for us and for him.'

O'Neal's girlfriend, LaMesha Roper, spent the last couple of weeks visiting family in Portland and staying at the downtown condo the couple continue to maintain. O'Neal was there for three days, too, as the Pacers hit town for last Saturday's game against the Blazers. They also had their 3-year-old daughter, Asjia, in tow.

'She is 3 foot 8 and is coming around in a major way,' O'Neal says. 'She is very advanced É speaks Spanish and everything. One day she will make her daddy a lot of money doing something.'

Notes: Derek Anderson would have you believe that Portland's road trip opener tonight at Philadelphia is not an opportunity for retribution, despite the 88-60 whipping the 76ers laid on the Blazers in Portland last week. 'It's just an Eastern Conference team we might wind up meeting in the (NBA) Finals,' the Blazer guard says. 'We can't worry about (revenge). We beat them by 20 and everybody is worrying about them coming back for us.'

Would it be fair to call Damon Stoudamire's 20-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist masterpiece Wednesday against Toronto a showcase game against a team that would squeeze squid for his services? 'The thought definitely entered my mind,' says Stoudamire, who hit 8 of 10 shots in his first start since Nov. 12. Stoudamire was the first draft choice and star player for the expansion Toronto franchise, earning the nickname 'Mighty Mouse' as he won Rookie of the Year honors in 1996. He spent his first 2 1/2 NBA seasons with the Raptors and has them atop his wish list this summer. The problem for a trade is the $30.3 million due him in his contract the next two years, but that's not an insurmountable figure.

Bonzi Wells joined an exclusive group with his third suspension of the season this week. In recent memory, only Dennis Rodman has taken an involuntary vacation three separate times in a season. Indiana's Ron Artest is certainly a candidate, however.