CLEVELAND — Cavaliers center Tyler Zeller slipped on his cute “Dora the Explorer” backpack, grabbed the handles of the pink stroller carrying his baby doll and headed out of Quicken Loans Arena after a win over Toronto.
It was time to go home.
But not before some humiliation.
Such is life for an NBA rookie, who must tolerate some playful hazing through the course of a season. But in less than two months, Zeller and teammates Dion Waiters and Kevin Jones can ditch the new toys given to them by Cavs coach Byron Scott as a reminder that they have some growing up to do.
And after a rough start, the young Cavs have done just that.
“We’re just playing ball,” Waiters, the No. 4 overall pick in last year’s draft said after scoring 23 points against the Raptors. “We’re growing every game.”
Now three seasons since LeBron James last wore Cleveland’s wine and gold, the Cavs are showing signs of becoming a contender again. They went 7-5 in February, their first winning month since March 2010, and are 4-1 since the All-Star break with the only loss by four points in Miami against James and the defending champion Heat, who have won 12 straight.
The Cavs are scoring, sharing the ball and playing good defense. It took a little time, but it’s coming together.
An early season stagger has given way to swagger.
“It’s night and day when you talk about November-December and January-February and the way we’re playing,” said Scott, in his third season with Cleveland. “It takes time. They’re young and they’ve got to get to know each other and they’ve got to understand what this game is all about. They’ve got to understand it’s ‘we’ and not ‘me.’
“That’s always big when you’ve got a bunch of young guys, and they’re starting to really understand that.”
On Wednesday, the Cavs won their second game in a row without All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, who has a hyperextended right knee. Cleveland ended an 11-game losing streak against Chicago earlier in the week and followed it by shaking off a horribly slow start — the Cavs opened 1-of-15 from the field — to beat the Raptors.
Waiters, averaging 19.8 points and 54 percent shooting since the break, had another strong game and the Cavs got major contributions from second-year forward Tristan Thompson (14 points, eight rebounds), Shaun Livingston (15 points), Wayne Ellington (13 points) and Luke Walton, who chipped in with just five points but had seven rebounds and seven assists in 21 minutes.
Walton and Livingston, who was claimed on waivers in December, are two of the veterans Scott is counting on to show Cleveland’s kids what it takes to be a pro. They’ve embraced the leadership roles and are seeing their younger teammates mature.
“It’s been a process all year long,” Walton said. “It’s not only a young team but there’s a lot of new guys, and in this league there’s definitely a learning curve. But it’s a lot of fun to see the growth and see the team getting better.”
There’s no denying the Cavs have been on a steady climb. After a loss Jan. 2, they were 7-25 and tough to watch. But they’ve gone 13-13 since and done it without center Anderson Varejao, who was having an All-Star-caliber season before undergoing knee surgery and developing a blood clot in his lung.
They are far from a finished product, but with a talented, young core led by the marvelous 20-year-old Irving — and two first-round draft picks this season, the Cavs may be close to moving back in among the Eastern Conference’s top teams.
“It reminds me of 1986,” said former majority owner Gordon Gund, who attended Wednesday’s game. “We had four rookies all starting on that team, too, in Brad Daugherty, ‘Hot Rod’ Williams, Mark Price and Ron Harper, which was a darn good group. This reminds me very much of that. If they get the playing time, they’re going to get much better, and Byron is willing to let them do that.
“The more time they get, the better they’ll get.”
Scott has mostly been patient with his young team, which got a huge boost when general manager Chris Grant acquired Ellington, center Marreese Speights and a future first-round pick from Memphis in January. However, there have been times when Scott wondered if the Cavs would ever learn.
He stayed on them, and in recent weeks they’ve shown an attention to detail that has allowed the Cavs to pull out some tight wins.
“We’ve been a little bit more focused,” Scott said. “When you’re right there, when you give yourselves an opportunity to win, that to me is showing progress, especially against some of the teams we’ve played. To be able to go on the last road trip and talk to the guys about winning two of three and our guys were able to do that, that’s a big confidence-booster.”
The game has slowed down for Cleveland’s rookies, who now understand what’s expected of them on and off the floor. As he sat at his locker before facing Toronto, Zeller studied film of the Raptors on his iPad, looking for tendencies, anything to get an edge.
The No. 17 overall pick last year, Zeller remembers being lost in his first two months.
“The first, shoot, 20 or 30 games, everything was just flying,” he said. “You were just trying to catch up. Now you can kind of see things happening. You can get to a spot and whether you make the play or not, you can at least kind of see things happening whereas before you really didn’t know what was going on.
“Hopefully we continue to get better and carry it over into next year.”
And by then, someone else will be pushing a stroller.
- Jones was assigned to the Canton Charge of the D-League on Thursday. He has played in 18 games for the Cavs this season and is averaging 2.1 points and 1.8 rebounds in 9.3 minutes per game. He has appeared in seven games for the Charge, averaging 23.0 points and 12.6 rebounds in 39.8 minutes per game.
- WHO: Cleveland vs. L.A. Clippers
- TIME: 7:30
- WHERE: The Q
- TV/RADIO: FS Ohio; WEOL 930-AM (joined in progress), WTAM 1100-AM