When Tyler Zeller returns to the Cleveland Cavaliers' lineup tomorrow night against the Dallas Mavericks, he will do more than boost a bench that has been lackluster since he got injured in Los Angeles. He will be hoping to live up to the power of the face mask in basketball over the last 20 years, which has provided fans with numerous great performances and lots of fun jokes from the stands.
The mask has been worn by many great players in the NBA. Perhaps the most renown for his face mask is Detroit Pistons' Richard "Rip" Hamilton, who began wearing the clear mask during the 2003-04, after breaking his nose twice that year. That season, Hamilton led the Pistons in scoring on their way to the NBA title. He has continued to wear it since and been one of Detroit's best players each year.
The mask is not unheard of in Cleveland either, as (sadly) LeBron James had his cheekbone smashed in 2005. He came out a few days later, wearing a similar mask to Hamilton's, and dropped 26 points on the Charlotte Bobcats.
In last season's All-Star game, Kobe Bryant had his nose broken by Dwayne Wade. For several games after that, Bryant was required to wear one of the masks, yet Kobe, in typical Kobe-fashion, had issues with the mask he was provided. Bryant went through several different masks, including a black masks that led to many Lone Ranger references.
The mask has been worn by players before they made their way to the NBA, including Chris Webber, who wore the mask while at Michigan. While the mask guarded Webber's face, he protected the basket just as effectively, with seven blocks in the win over Minnesota. Bryant wore it in high school too, but did not have the issues he did when he was a professional.
While many other basketball players have worn the mask during injuries, Zeller is the latest and will have to live up to the hype the mask provides. Having set his career-high in points and tied his best in rebounds in his last game against the Los Angeles Clippers, it must be assumed that he will provide a huge night for the Cavaliers, as the mask will guide his way.
With all kidding aside, the mask will allow Zeller to return to the rotation for Cleveland, hopefully helping a bench that has been woeful as of late. Since his injury, the Cavaliers' bench has shot just 34.5% from the floor, which is including Daniel Gibson's 48.7% shooting. Taking him out of the equation puts Cleveland at 28.6% for their second unit.
While this bench was not expected to be stellar this season, the unit will need to improve if the Cavaliers want to start winning again. Cleveland is ranked 28th in bench scoring, with just 24 points per game, and 29th in efficiency while the bench is on the court. The coaching staff will hope that the mask will have some of the impact it has had on other NBA players, and that Zeller can be the masked-hero for the bench, in order to help spark some better play.
The Mavericks come to town with a 5-4 record, but have exceeded most people's expectations thus far, after several key players left in the offseason and none of the star free agents made their way to Dallas. The bench will be challenged, yet again, as the Mavericks have fifth highest scoring bench and the fourth most efficient so far this season.
With the Cavaliers returning home after the road trip, they will surely look to play well in front of the local fans. With the first unit doing their job, the return of Zeller could spark the bench to help push Cleveland over the edge. His presence down low will make it more difficult for Dallas to score in the paint, while he can hopefully add some scoring and rebounding, that has not been consistently present so far this year.
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