Maybe what Tyler Zeller needed to rejuvenate himself was another start against another All-Star to sharpen his focus and reignite the engine.
With Anderson Varejao sidelined Wednesday nursing a knee injury, coach Byron Scott turned to Zeller, who had stumbled in recent games. Zeller looked lost at times on the floor, turning the ball over seven times in three games. Paired Wednesday against perennial All-Star and future hall of famer Kevin Garnett, Zeller scored a career-high 20 points (although he grabbed just three rebounds) in the Cavs’ 103-91 loss to the Boston Celtics.
Even better, Zeller was finally able to rid himself of the clunky face mask he was forced to wear for five weeks after fracturing his cheekbone in the fourth game of the season.
Of course, as soon as Zeller removed the mask Wednesday, the ball plunked him in the nose within the first couple of minutes. Zeller thought taking a hit to the face so soon actually helped him.
“It gave me the confidence that I’m good, I don’t need it,” he said. “I can play without it and still take a hit.”
Zeller said it was “incredible” to play without a mask again because of how much it impeded some of his shots around the rim.
“The little touch shots, I shoot a lot of those by finding the rim out of the corner of my eye,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to do that again and not have to whip my head around to try to find the rim.”
Zeller had no problem seeing the rim Wednesday, making 9-of-15 shots. It was similar to his performance in the final preseason game, when he capped an inconsistent camp by producing his best game with 13 points and seven assists against Indiana Pacers All-Star center Roy Hibbert.
Much like that night against the Pacers, Zeller was smooth around the perimeter Wednesday. He made a number of pick-and-pop shots and has shown a nice touch around the basket with his left hand.
Scott wasn’t sure what to make of Zeller’s best performances coming in starts, but he was pleased with the way the rookie handled facing Garnett, who has scored more than 24,000 points and grabbed 13,000 rebounds in a sterling 18-year career.
“I thought he played really well,” Scott said. “He seemed to be pretty comfortable, took on the challenge. His first start he has to go against a hall of famer. He held his own pretty good.”
Varejao banged his knee in a game Tuesday against the Toronto Raptors, and it was simply too sore for him to play a night later. If he is still unable to go today when the Cavs host the Pacers, Zeller will be right back in the starting lineup, again facing Hibbert. Only this time, it won’t be the preseason.
Zeller said he never wavered during his recent struggles, which included four turnovers in a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
“Sometimes you’re not going to make your shots,” he said. “You’ve just got to find other ways to help. You’re going to have your ups and downs, you just can’t get too high or too low.”
The Cavs recalled Jon Leuer from the Development League on Thursday. In six starts with the Canton Charge, Leuer averaged 20.3 points and 12.3 rebounds. The Cavs sent Leuer to Canton to get some playing time and also to restore some confidence.
Scott said throughout the preseason he didn’t think Leuer was confident enough in his abilities.
“I think the kid has some talent, but I can’t have more confidence in you than you have in yourself,” Scott said. “You have to come out there and do it on the court as well. I think this stint will help him get that back, then when he gets back up here, hopefully he’ll continue to play that way.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.