If you look up the word defeated in the dictionary, close by you’ll see a photograph of Cleveland Cavaliers (5-23) center Tyler Zeller sitting on the hardwood of Quicken Loans Arena at the with 4:11 to go in a contest with the Indiana Pacers (15-12). The rookie, who was subbing in as a starter for the injured Anderson Varejao, was worked up and down the floor all night. In the aforementioned scenario, Pacers small forward Paul George had used his body to elicit an and-one call on the former North Carolina basketball player. Zeller than sat frustrated on the floor, looking as hapless as he did when Indiana center Roy Hibbert came in the lane of Friday night.
The Cavs allow an average of 40.6 points in the paint, but the Pacers exposed the Varejao-less frontcourt and racked up 52 points down low. 52.5 percent of Indiana’s points came in that area, as the Cavaliers dropped their sixth straight game for the second time this season in a 99-89 loss at home. And it all stemmed from Zeller’s battle with the Indiana bigs and a non-existent Kyrie Irving in the second and fourth quarters. It’s a shame too because the Cavaliers did all they could to keep the game competitive in the first half.
It all began with an aggressive attack from Dion Waiters and Alonzo Gee. Their energy early on made up for Varejao’s absence, as the two were frequent visitors down the lane and combined for 13 points in the first quarter. Gee was able to slow the offensive efforts of David West and George Hill early on, as the proficient on-the-ball defender took over duties for Irving at times. Kyrie’s pick-and-roll defense needs to improve, and until then, head coach Byron Scott has to rely on Gee in certain situations.
The second quarter began with an offensive outburst from shooting guard C.J. Miles, who accounted for Cleveland’s first seven points of the frame. With some help from Waiters and Tristan Thompson, the Cavs darted out to a 36-32 lead with around eight minutes to go until halftime. More than five minutes went by before Cleveland would put points on the board, while Indiana piled on nine points to regain the lead. If it wasn’t for Waiters going at the rim in the final minute, the Cavs would have went into halftime down. Instead, they took the 45-44 lead into the locker room. The main problem with their performance in the second quarter was with Irving; no points and two turnovers. After that is when things finally imploded.
George and Hibbert then fully exposed Zeller for the defender he really is. Indiana’s 33-point third quarter effort, led by the two players mentioned earlier who combined for 14 of those points, buried the Cavs and had the Pacers leading 77-67 at the end of the frame. Zeller played all 12 of those minutes, turning over the ball twice and scoring only four points. Hibbert finished with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, while George added 10 points. Even though all five starters on both teams scored in double figures, it was Indiana’s five that out-hustled the Cavaliers. It didn’t help that Irving, Cleveland’s leading scorer with 17 points, didn’t score from the seven-minute mark in the first quarter to around the six-minute mark in the third quarter. You’re not going to win games with your best offensive threat missing for 23 minutes on the scoreboard. He ended the quarter strong with 10 points, but increased his turnover total to a game-high six.
Calling this the worst defensive performance of Zeller’s young career would be an understatement. An atrocious second half led to the Cavaliers’ demise, as they allowed the game to completely slip away in the matter of the first seven minutes of the second half. One bad quarter, 40 percent shooting from the field (Irving shot 31.3 percent) and Zeller’s defensive play wiped out an applaud-able effort from Tristan Thompson, who finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds. Although he let the pick-and-roll get to him early on in the game, he settled into his own. This is they type of performance that Scott wants every game from the 2011 No. 4 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
The Cavaliers will have to face yet another Central Division opponent on Saturday at 8:30 p.m., as they will travel to Milwaukee to go head-to-head with the Bucks.