CLEVELAND: With his slightly twisted sense of humor, Cavaliers coach Byron Scott threw Tyler Zeller into the tiger cage Tuesday night and locked the door. He wanted to see how the rookie would respond to facing Roy Hibbert, the Indiana Pacers’ All-Star center.
Zeller responded by outplaying Hibbert, finishing with 13 points and seven assists, but he didn’t get enough help in the Cavs’ 100-82 loss to the Pacers. They close the preseason at 3-4 and open the regular season Oct. 30 at home against the Washington Wizards.
Scott was irritated afterward with his team defense, which has been a recurring theme throughout the preseason. He has insisted this team has to improve defensively, but the Pacers shot 48 percent from the field, and starting point guard D.J. Augustin had nearly as many assists (11) as the entire Cavs roster (13).
“From a defensive standpoint, we have to do a much better job,” Scott said. “Didn’t have many bright spots on the defensive end and that’s the key.”
Scott saw guys getting too aggressive in their help defense and taking bad angles on double teams, they played from their heels and they weren’t communicating.
The Cavs’ final three opponents of the preseason — the Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic — each shot at least 47 percent.
“When we did defend, we got easy buckets,” he said. “But for the most part, we didn’t do a very good job. There would be times we had four guys do exactly what they were supposed to do and one guy break down and it’d cost us a basket. All five guys have to be in sync.”
Scott promised he’d shake up the starting lineup for the preseason finale and he followed through, inserting Zeller and Alonzo Gee while sending C.J. Miles and Tristan Thompson to the bench.
Miles is a swing player who can start or come off the bench and play both shooting guard and small forward, but Scott insisted the Thompson move wasn’t intended to send a message to him despite the fact he hasn’t been pleased with Thompson’s rebounding efforts for much of the preseason. To be fair, Scott hasn’t been happy with a number of guys’ efforts in rebounding.
Instead, the lineup shake-up was a reminder that a number of jobs are wide open with a week left in training camp.
“It lets all these young guys know that there are two spots that are taken: Kyrie and Andy,” Scott said. “The other three are still up for grabs. That still is true right now.”
Zeller played well in his starting debut. He had a steal, took a couple of charges and had a big block on Pacers forward David West. More impressively, he limited Hibbert to four points and five rebounds. Hibbert also had three fouls and five turnovers.
“Hibbert is a great player and somebody I was definitely nervous to go up against, but I knew I had to play my best game,” Zeller said. “Hopefully, I continue to improve from here.”
Scott said at the beginning of training camp he didn’t think Zeller could progress enough to be a starter by the beginning of the regular season. After his performance Tuesday, he isn’t ready to rule it out. But it’s clear Zeller is competing against Tristan Thompson for that starting spot, since Anderson Varejao’s spot is secure.
Zeller’s presence would bump Varejao to power forward, where he struggled Tuesday. Scott chalked Varejao’s problems to three quick fouls in the first half. He finished scoreless with seven rebounds and five fouls.
Zeller, however, may have made the most dramatic leap from the start of the preseason until now. Scott joked the game is still fast for the rookie, but it’s slowing down toward the speed limit.
“If you look at Game 1 to Game 7, he’s come a long way in a short period of time,” Scott said.
Kyrie Irving had 20 points and Dion Waiters had 12, but the Cavs’ starting backcourt combined to shoot 12 of 35. Daniel Gibson missed the game with a mild concussion sustained in practice, and Luke Harangody missed with a sore right knee.
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.