He lost the mask. He joined the starting five. He put up a career-best 20 points, providing a flurry mid-range jump shots, right-handed hooks, and the occasional slash to the rim. Tyler Zeller, at least for one night, looked like an NBA-caliber center in what was just his 23rd professional contest — his first as a starter.
Most importantly: He was comfortable.
After having missed several games earlier this season with a concussion and a broken orbital bone, Zeller returned to action with a plastic mask — one which he would never grow accustomed to. He would joke about making it a part of his uniform, similar to veteran guard Rip Hamilton, but the truth was in his actions: every time Zeller had a second to remove the mask from his person, he would. One of the two straps which were supposed to keep the mask affixed was always loose, bouncing around his neck like a mid-90s Croakie.
Entering the game immediately following warm-ups rather than coming of the bench allowed for a different Zeller than Cavalier fans have grown accustomed to over the early portion of the season. The rookie big man has accrued his minutes, but coming off of the bench and often falling victim to match-up-based moves has often provided for an up-and-down output. Playing with the starting unit, running alongside Kyrie Irving and getting to be an integral part of the team rather than a substitute allowed Zeller to show glimpses of what he can do if put in the right position.
Many variables were in play for Zeller’s big night. The end result was yet another Cavalier loss as Boston’s Paul Pierce partied like it was 2002, but for the rookie big man, milestones were undoubtedly met. The scoring total was undoubtedly a function of playing time as Zeller netted a career-high 36 minutes in the wake of an Anderson Varejao knee injury. Slotted alongside Tristan Thompson for a good portion of the game, if the Cavaliers were to have any offense from its starting frontcourt, it was coming from the long-time Tarheel; he attempted 15 field goals on the night, also a career high mark. He got to the line. He moved without the ball — seven of his nine converted shots were assisted. And he proved to be a weapon from various spots on the floor, hitting four of his eight shots beyond 16 feet.
And, of course, the mask. That lightweight piece of plastic that had been a heavyweight burden; the protective shield that only served to cut off peripheral vision, forcing Zeller to completely turn his head before unfurling a touch shot. It was gone.
Like a child who can’t stop licking his or her teeth after having braces removed, there were moments in Wednesday night’s loss where Zeller found himself looking for his mask when coming out of timeouts. He would sustain a blow to the face prior to a timeout, a sequence that he claims allowed him to build confidence that he can begin playinghisgame once again, not having to worry about wayward elbows. And, per Zeller, the feeling was “incredible,” as if he had finally been freed from a ball and chain that merely masqueraded as clear polymer.
“Im very thankful to be done with it, and hopefully I don’t have to go back to it,” Zeller said.
Naturally, Zeller’s ability to stretch the floor led to a few downsides, specifically a mere three rebounds — a tough task for a seven-footer who netted 36 minutes on the floor. He also failed to block a shot, though the Celtics’ center on the evening, Hall of Fame-bound Kevin Garnett, was held to a workman-like 12 points and six rebounds after hitting several of his token mid-range jumpshots. Replacing Anderson Varejao will always be a tough task, but the possessions created by the Brazilian big man were obviously not replicated by the rookie.
There is little doubt that Tyler Zeller is the best true center on this Cavaliers basketball team. He’s great at running the floor, he can hit shots from multiple spots. Given additional time alongside Irving, it is easy to see that a former Blue Devil and a Tarheel could mesh to become a fairly lethal pick-and-roll combination. But as small as the sample size has been on Zeller thus far, the number of games like Tuesday night are far outweighed by the ho-hum nights that have littered the residual.
But the glimpses are there. The mask has been removed — hopefully for good. And if given additional opportunities, Tyler Zeller has the chance to become one of the more feel-good stories of this otherwise depressing 2012-13 Cleveland Cavaliers campaign.
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