CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Vince Carter's tender left ankle was aching so much at the morning shootaround he couldn't participate, and Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy ruled him out of Tuesday night's game against Charlotte.
Then a wet walk back to the hotel in the middle of the remnants of Hurricane Ida changed everything.
Suddenly Carter's ankle loosened up enough that he decided to test it in pregame warmups. He was cleared to play, came off the bench, scored 15 points and helped the Magic bounce back from an ugly loss to beat the Bobcats 93-81.
Carter, Orlando's key offseason acquisition, is back -- just in time for Wednesday's Eastern Conference finals rematch with Cleveland.
"Must have been the stroll back to the hotel -- in the rain," Carter said, smiling. "I just took my time, just walked back in the rain."
Dwight Howard had 15 points and 10 rebounds, Brandon Bass scored 12 of his 14 points in the first quarter, and the Magic survived Charlotte's second-half comeback with the strange sight of Carter coming off the bench after missing four of the past five games.
It marked only the eighth time in 781 career games that Carter didn't start -- but it was his choice.
"[Van Gundy] was like, 'Cool, you're going to guard Raja [Bell],' " Carter said. "I said, 'Uh, can I come off the bench?' He was like, 'What? Are you sure?' First of all, I wasn't in shootaround so I didn't really get the game plan. I didn't want to disrupt what was going on."
Carter checked in to start the second quarter. He missed a 3-pointer on his first touch, but later hit three 3s, the last giving Orlando a 52-33 lead.
He finished 5 of 16 from the field, but provided an option missing when the Magic lost by 28 to Oklahoma City on Sunday.
"I got here and I was doing the [scouting] board and Vince came in and said he was going to give it a shot," Van Gundy said. "I was totally surprised."
Raymond Felton had 18 points and Boris Diaw added 14 for Charlotte, which cut a 22-point first-half deficit to six early in the fourth quarter but could get no closer in its second straight loss -- and its first at home after a franchise-best 3-0 start.
"We gave up 22 points on turnovers," coach Larry Brown said. "We were just careless."
After Flip Murray's driving layup cut Orlando's lead to 81-75, Marcin Gortat had a three-point play and Matt Barnes hit a fadeaway in a 7-0 run for the Magic. Carter hit two free throws with 3 minutes left to give Orlando a 91-79 lead.
The Magic didn't need Carter in the first quarter, with Bass 6-for-6 from the field and Orlando shooting 70 percent. Charlotte, the NBA's lowest scoring team, was dysfunctional on offense as the Magic built a 35-23 lead.
"We weren't playing defense, we weren't guarding anybody," forward Gerald Wallace said. "It doesn't help that they're knocking down shots."
The Bobcats couldn't keep big men on the court to guard Howard. Starting center Tyson Chandler picked up two fouls in 3 minutes and sat out the rest of the first half. Backup Nazr Mohammed had three fouls in 6 minutes, and DeSagana Diop entered only to commit turnovers on consecutive possessions.
The Bobcats weren't helped by their 2-of-17 shooting from 3-point range and Wallace's continued shooting woes.
Wallace entered the night as the NBA's top rebounder and had 13 points and nine rebounds. But he was 5 of 12 from the field, missed two dunks, and bemoaned Charlotte's tendency to settle for jump shots.
"Then when we decide to go to the rim, that's why we don't get any calls," Wallace said. "Referees see us as a jump-shooting team, so when you go to the rim, they're not going to call anything."
Howard, fined $15,000 before the game for criticizing the officials on his blog after a Nov. 3 loss at Detroit, added six assists one night before his matchup with Shaquille O'Neal.
But Carter will help, too. He was watching as a fan when the Magic knocked off the Cavaliers to reach the finals.
"Now I step right into it," Carter said. "I'm excited."
Only this time, Carter doesn't think Van Gundy will go along with him coming off the bench.
"I think he'll tell me to shut up tomorrow," Carter said. "He's done it before."
Howard had little to say about his fine. "I talked to the NBA about it. I guess I've got to follow the rules," he said. ... Van Gundy said F Ryan Anderson (ankle) got out of a boot Tuesday but won't be ready to return until next week at the earliest. ... Former NBA player Robert Parish sat behind one basket.