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Steve Nash and Vince Carter on different paths

Two athletes in the same place, the bulk of their careers behind them, neither likely to have an NBA championship ring to hold up as proof to the simple-minded that their careers meant something.

But even as Vince Carter and Steve Nash make their way through their respective conference final series, their legacies, already formed and shaped by more than a decade of NBA service each, are close to being set in stone.

Nash's Phoenix Suns may yet get to the NBA final, given they've surprisingly pulled even with the Los Angeles Lakers (2-2 in the best-of-seven series, with Game 5 in L.A. on Thursday night). But if they don't, it will be a case of a good team falling short against a potentially great one.

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Regardless, Phoenix's playoff run has delivered yet more evidence that Nash gives everything he has when the ball goes up, the Victoria native's quick handiwork - trying to set his broken nose on the fly - as powerful a message as his joyous celebration of the play of the Suns' bench brigade.

Former Canadian Olympic teammate Todd MacCulloch was saying the other day that he hoped Nash, a two-time NBA most valuable player, got a ring, "just so no one can say anything bad about his career."

He needn't worry.

But Vince Carter? You'd like to say he should worry, but it's hard to make the case he does.

Evan as the Orlando Magic have rallied in their series with the Boston Celtics - winning twice in a row to trail 3-2 before Friday's game - Carter's reputation as one of the sport's great underachievers won't require revision. Impossibly, at least in the eyes of Toronto Raptors fans, he's made Magic followers lament the departure of Hedo Turkoglu, as Carter has turned into a $16-million (U.S.) spectator when the stakes are highest.

There are bad games at the wrong times, and then there's Carter's Game 4 bed-soiling: Three points, two rebounds, three turnovers and 1-for-9 shooting in 30-plus minutes of a game the Magic won despite him, not because of him.

The local media begged him to deliver in Game 5, and all Carter could muster was eight points (3-for-11).

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Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy has taken to playing journeyman Matt Barnes ahead of Carter late in games. (The coach's brother, Jeff, commentating for ESPN, shrugged and explained: "He wants to get his best competitors on the floor.")

Those who know Nash say the only surprise is he is bringing his particular brand of competitive commitment to the highest levels of basketball - something that was hard to predict when he was growing up playing soccer and hockey on Vancouver Island. But the way he plays - all out - has never changed.

Sadly for those who've followed Carter throughout his career, the same is true - he's never changed. And any last-gasp, face-saving efforts either Wednesday in Orlando in Game 5 or later on in the series (should it go that far) will alter the fundamental truth about one of the sport's great talents: The doubters were right - he never cared enough and still doesn't.

Nearly a decade ago, with his team's playoff fate in the balance, Carter had a choice: Leave the Raptors the morning of their Game 7 showdown with the Philadelphia 76ers, attend his graduation ceremony at the University of North Carolina and fly back for the game that night, or put the graduation off and focus at the task at hand.

He chose to get his diploma.

Carter's intentions were good. Here was an emerging NBA star willing to pay more than lip service to the significance of education and family (he had, of course, promised his mother, Michelle, herself a teacher, that he would graduate from UNC after leaving early for the NBA draft). Things could be worse, and he was young. His story was still being written.

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But that initial pen stroke set the stage. He could never quite figure out that as a professional basketball player, it's what happens on the floor that really matters.

Now that the final chapter is in progress, his days as ESPN's next big thing long gone, his shoe deals a memory, it's becoming obvious Carter will never have a championship ring to wave in the face of detractors. And now that he's gone silent in the spotlight, he won't have the honour that comes with failing valiantly in the attempt.

Nash? He may or may not get the Suns to the NBA final. The ring may or may not come. But you know he tried.

He'll always have that.

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