For the first 43 minutes Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, it looked like a great homecoming for former Washington Hatchet - now Cleveland Cavalier - Tyler Zeller. The final five belonged to the Indiana Pacers.
The Pacers overcame a 20-point fourth quarter deficit to beat the Cavaliers 99-94, despite a game-high 29 points from Kyrie Irving and 18 points from Zeller.
With the Cleveland leading 88-81, Indiana guard Lance Stephenson drove to the basket looking to draw a foul, and he succeeded. Zeller was called for his sixth foul with 4:49 to play in regulation, and a night that started with such promise for Zeller was over.
Cleveland did its best to withstand the Indiana run, but a George Hill three-point play with 46.5 seconds remaining gave the Pacers their first lead since the second quarter, 93-92. Irving responded with a drive to the basket, which yielded two made free throws to put Cleveland up one. Paul George’s corner 3-pointer right in front of the Cleveland bench sealed the 99-94 Indiana victory.
The reality, of course, is that Cleveland is still a young team. Despite holding a 20-point lead for the second time in less than a month, the Cavaliers couldn’t hold on. Last month, Cleveland blew a 27-point lead and lost to Miami. Zeller explained that everything is a learning experience for this team, which has been impacted by injuries all season.
“We have to make sure we don’t have lapses,” Zeller said. “We’ve had a couple games like this where we have had major lapses. We lost 20 points in nine or 10 minutes tonight. We can’t have lapses like that. We have to be able to play for 48 minutes straight.” Cleveland came out of the gate slowly, as the Pacers jumped out to a 20-8 victory, and the game looked like it was headed towards a Pacer blowout. The Cavalier offense had other plans. Over the next two and a half quarters Cleveland outscored Indiana 80-48 to hold an 88-68 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The huge Cavalier run was led by Irving and Zeller. Irving continually found Zeller wide open for 15-18 foot jumpers, and the Washington native looked like he was on his way to a career high. Before Zeller, who has averaged 8 points and six rebounds per game, fouled out with 4:49 to play - he shot 9-for-17 for 17 points and three rebounds.
Zeller looked like he was back at North Carolina.
“I got a great point guard,” Zeller said. “Kyrie (Irving) and Shaun Livingston do a great job of creating space and drawing the bigs to them. They make my job easier; all I have to do is knock down a jumper.” Success for Zeller in Bankers Life Fieldhouse is nothing new; he led the Washington Hatchets to the 2008 Class 3A State Championship with 47 points, and was a member of the 2005 team. Irving kept feeding and Zeller kept knocking down shot after shot.
“There’s a little bit of comfort,” Zeller said. “It’s also a little different, because you get to play around people you know, so it’s fun.” The transition from college to the NBA can be difficult for a multitude of reasons, Zeller said the speed and athleticism was a big change. In addition to the faster game, there is a lot more losing involved. Cleveland has a 24-53 record, which are more losses than his four years at North Carolina combined.
“The worst year I had in college was when I was a sophomore and we made the NIT, but even then we had a winning record,” Zeller said. “I try to just stay focused on getting better every day. I know that we have a lot of growing up to do, but I think that’s a process. We just have to take it one step at a time.”