ORLANDO — If you're heading east along Interstate 4 toward downtown, you can't miss the 45- by 50-foot banner picturing Vince Carter that's prominently draped down the side of a swanky, high-rise apartment.
Talk about dominating the skyline.
Talk about displaying sky-high expectations.
Carter, 33, a standout veteran guard from nearby Daytona Beach, was obtained by the Magic in a blockbuster offseason trade that the team hoped would allow it to hang a banner of its own — a championship banner.
"It's motivation, not pressure. I'm past the point of putting pressure on myself," said Carter after a recent practice as the Magic prepared for its Eastern Conference semifinal matchup against the Hawks. Orlando routed Atlanta 114-71 in the opener Tuesday and resumes the best-of-seven series tonight at Amway Arena.
"But it's motivating and exciting that somebody has that kind of confidence in me first and foremost to trade for me and bring me to a team where they're already pretty damn good and try to help get us over the hump."
The Magic has twice reached the NBA Finals, 1995 and last season.
Twice it has come up short of winning the grand prize.
"That's why we brought him in," said general manager Otis Smith, who dealt Rafer Alston, Tony Battie and Courtney Lee to New Jersey for Carter and forward Ryan Anderson within days of the Magic's loss to the Lakers in the championship series.
Not that Smith expected — or even needed — the 6-foot-6 Carter to be the man.
This isn't Toronto or New Jersey. In Orlando, Carter only has to mesh with superstar center Dwight Howard, as well as forward Rashard Lewis and point guard Jameer Nelson, which he has done nicely, averaging 16.6 points (second on the team), 3.9 rebounds and 3.1 during the regular season.
"I've been a big fan of Vince's since he's been in the league," Howard said. "The thing I like about Vince is, when he's aggressive, nobody can stop him. He can shoot the ball, he can drive, he can pass it. Whatever he wants to do at any time. … He's been a difference-maker for our team."
Especially in the second half of the season.
"He had to understand that we're going to work hard every day," Smith said. "That's something he had to grow into here because we don't take a whole lot of days off."
"Coming into a new situation, a new system, he had to get used to certain things," Nelson said. "I think he made that adjustment well. He's done a great job, and you've seen it over the last few months."
Still, Carter, a former North Carolina Tar Heel scoring machine who led his team to back-to-back Final Fours in 1997 and '98, struggled during much of the Magic's opening-round playoff sweep of the Bobcats. He averaged 15.5 points, hitting 1-of-17 from 3-point range. In the past, Carter said, he didn't handle that kind of stat line particularly well.
"Six years ago, I'd be killing myself," he said. "You have to trust your game and your ability and your routine and mechanics, and sometimes I would second-guess that or try to fix it. I still go back and watch tape to see if my elbow's too high or if I'm shooting the ball on the way down or whatever, but (before), I'd beat myself up over situations."
Not now. He knows he can shoot and score.
Carter did that Tuesday, scoring 20 points on 7 of 16 shooting (1-of-2 from 3-point range). And he knows this is the time of the year to display it. In his 11 previous NBA seasons, he reached the playoffs just five times and never advanced beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals. His Nets didn't make the postseason his final two years there, though they were close in 2009.
"That experience last year helped me grow as a player and as an individual, and to come here now, that helped me," Carter said. "I'm thankful, and I'm definitely aware of that and that the time is now. It's not like, 'Oh, okay, if we don't get it, we'll get it next year.' A lot of guys don't get the opportunity to be on a team like this one and compete for (a title). I can tell you, if you asked me three or four years ago, I would have said, 'Hey, it probably will never happen for me.' "
Especially in a city so close to his hometown. For the first time, he can look in the stands and see friends he played recreational ball with or went to high school with, or teachers.
"It's been awesome," he said. "More so than you can imagine."
Unless you're driving along I-4 and glance around. And up. Then you get an idea.
Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347.