EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -Crunch time. Money time.
Call the final minutes of an NBA game whatever you want, but it's the time when superstars lead their teams to victory.
While LeBron James has done it twice in giving the Cleveland Cavaliers a 2-0 advantage in their Eastern Conference semifinal with New Jersey, Vince Carter has been a no-show for the Nets down the stretch, and he knows it.
``I think I can play better,'' Carter said Thursday after the Nets practiced for Game 3 here on Saturday afternoon. ``That's my goal, to come out and play a lot better for my team. I know I can play a lot better. It's in my mind to give the team a little more.''
Statistically, Carter's numbers are respectable compared to James' stats.
Carter has averaged 23.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists. James is averaging five more points, while his assists (9.5) and rebounds (6.0) are similar.
The difference is when the game has been on the line.
James hit a game-clinching shot in the waning seconds of Game 1, and he dominated the final minutes of Game 2 with nine points and three assists in a game-ending 24-11 spurt.
Carter has come up empty in both stretches, converting 3-of-13 from the field.
As a team, the Nets were 6-for-24 from the field in the fourth quarter from the point where they held their last lead to the end of the first two games.
Carter insists Sasha Pavlovic and the Cavaliers' defense aren't doing anything out of the ordinary to stop him. They are blitzing him with a second defender at times, packing the lane and throwing in other little gimmicks.
It's the same stuff he has seen all year.
``I have had a lot of open shots, a lot of great shots,'' Carter said. ``They didn't fall for me. For me, it's not something where I'm going to beat myself up and go and take more shots or work on my technique. I just have to hit them.''
In the opening-round series against Toronto, Carter was 13-of-43 when New Jersey got a split with the Raptors in Games 1 and 2. Back at home at the Continental Airlines Arena, he scored 37 points in Game 3 on 15-of-23 shooting, and then hit six of his first eight shots and scored 27 points in a Game 4 blowout.
``It's all about executing and hitting shots,'' said Carter, who was 17-of-49 in the first two games in Cleveland, ``I could hit them all. I don't know. We can't worry about the past.''
All Carter knows is that despite his shooting woes and the Cavaliers' 39-12 dominance on the offensive boards, the Nets were right there in the first two games. If he had made a couple of shots or the Nets had gotten a key rebound, the series could easily be tied.
James is concerned that Carter might find his touch.
``You should be worried about that every game,'' the 22-year-old superstar said after the Cavaliers practiced in Cleveland. ``We've just got to be in tune with what we're doing, and if he's making tough shots, then there's nothing we can do about that. We just have to limit some of his easy buckets and some of his wide-open shots and continue to play him physical.''
Fellow guard Larry Hughes said that Pavlovic is doing a great job of pushing Carter to spots on the floor where he can get help.
``We understand that he has a repertoire and he can get it going,'' Hughes said. ``But we have to give credit to our defense and what Sasha's doing. He's really being aggressive and he has his mind set on making it tough for Vince.''
One way the Nets can make it easier on Carter is by rebounding. Cleveland has a 100-69 advantage on the boards and that edge has been the reason Jason Kidd has not been able to get New Jersey's transition game in gear.
No rebounds. No running. That puts Carter in the half-court offense more, and Cleveland has shown it knows how to make him work.
``When the playoffs come around, everyone wants to be playing at their best, shooting good percentages,'' Nets forward Richard Jefferson said. ``Me personally, I just think Vince expects a lot from himself. He wants to play at a high level.''
The problem for the Nets is that Carter is not doing it so far against the Cavaliers.
``I am going to keep playing,'' Carter said. ``I just enjoy playing. I am going to keep playing regardless of whether you guys like it or not. I am going to play for my team. They have a lot of trust in me. I have been doing it for a long time. Two games don't get to me.''
If the Nets didn't have enough to worry about, James has further motivation after being left off the All-NBA first team announced Thursday.
James, the leading vote-getter last season, was dropped to the second team despite averaging 27.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists, joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in history to average 27-6-6 three years in a row.
``We'll see what happens,'' Cavaliers forward Drew Gooden said.
Associated Press sports writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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