Tuesday December 4th, 2007

He looks nothing like a mountain man today, but Zydrunas Ilgauskas vanished up into the hills last summer. When he wandered back down for training camp, his head and face were shaved clean and his clothes were looser than before. The result is that he may be headed back to the All-Star Game before he knows it.

"I haven't really thought about it,'' said the 7-foot-3 Ilgauskas, a two-time All-Star who hasn't been invited since 2005. "It would be tough -- I don't think I have the scoring numbers for that.''

It's true that Ilgauskas' 13.9 points a game through Monday placed him fifth among Eastern Conference centers behind Dwight Howard, Eddy Curry, Shaquille O'Neal and Rasheed Wallace. But look at the more revealing "efficiency'' stat -- which accounts for all of the key indicators, including his 11.3 rebounds -- and you'll find Ilgauskas ranks second only to Howard among East centers.

Amid the Cleveland Cavaliers' early-season pile-up of holdouts and injuries, Ilgauskas has reemerged as a soothing pick-and-roll partner to LeBron James. After seeing his averages diminish over the past two years, Ilgauskas, 32, looks younger, slimmer and reborn.

"In the past couple of years I had a hard time finding myself in our offense and getting into the offensive flow,'' said Ilgauskas, who averaged 11.9 points and 7.7 rebounds last season. "I always would start slow because there was a new offense, and I was a little bit like a forgotten man and struggling. But this year that wasn't the case. I had a strong start and coach had his trust in me and I had a lot of opportunities to contribute.''

This trend actually goes back to last spring, when Ilgauskas elevated his numbers in the postseason, to 12.6 points and 9.7 rebounds, to help Cleveland reach the NBA Finals. After being swept by the champion Spurs, he disappeared with his wife, Jennifer, to the south of France with no plans to undergo a makeover. Which, of course, is how the best transformations occur.

They rented a house on the hills near Cannes in the old fortress town of Mougins, where Pablo Picasso spent the second half of his career.

"I didn't touch a basketball until September,'' Ilgauskas said. "I didn't have anywhere to shoot, so I'd do different stuff. I joined the local gym with the locals, so I would go to the gym a couple of times a day to get a lift in and do cardio. And there was a park so a couple of times a week I would just take off with my wife and we would run for 30 or 40 minutes. Or I would do some sprints up the hill and stuff like that.

"More than anything, it kept me in good condition and it was a real nice break. It was hot as hell. But I think a different kind of work helps because to do the same thing over and over again, especially at my age ... ''

Apart from being recognized on extremely rare occasions, he enjoyed a summer of quiet anonymity.

"All they care about is soccer there,'' Ilgauskas said. "They would see a big guy and leave him alone and that was it.''

Jennifer liked it too: "My wife didn't want to come back.''

But there was the matter of that $10.1 million salary he needed to earn this year. When he returned to Cleveland, he looked like a new man -- 10 pounds lighter (Ilgauskas said he's a slim 255 now), with his hair and occasionally thick beard shaved off, and a newfound understanding of a few French words to complete the renaissance.

A good thing it was, because the Cavs have needed more from him. Backup big man Anderson Varejao was holding out until he signed an offer sheet with the Charlotte Bobcats on Tuesday that the Cavs are expected to match, Sasha Pavlovic didn't sign until after the regular-season opener, and Donyell Marshall and Larry Hughes have been injured. Despite a road-heavy schedule that sent them to China in the preseason and away from home for 11 of their first 18 games, the Cavs managed an encouraging 9-6 start. (They've since lost three in a row while James was sidelined by a sprained left index finger, but no team could survive his absence.)

Coach Mike Brown has focused more practice time on improving the Cavs' offensive flow, which has helped James get out to an MVP start while incorporating Ilgauskas and forward Drew Gooden. Their defense has lost something without Varejao, but the Cavs are a respectable No. 6 in rebound differential (outrebounding opponents by 3.0 per game) as Ilgauskas and Gooden (14.4 ppg, 10.3 rpg) are the only frontcourt pair in the league averaging a double-double.

Varejao's imminent return should help Brown meet the Cavs' goal of reducing Z's minutes to 32 or fewer from his current 33.1 per game. The Cavs remain concerned about the long-term future of a center who underwent five surgeries on his feet before he turned 26. Though Ilgauskas has since become one of the NBA's most reliable big men while missing only 11 games since 2002-03, he admits he worries too.

"It's always in the back of my mind what I went through,'' he said. "I look at my feet every day and that's the reminder if I ever take [good health] for granted, all of the scars that I had to go through and all the battles. I enjoy basketball so much more now because I don't take it for granted.''

He still rehabs his feet at least four times per week with special exercises to keep his ankles strong because he no longer tapes them.

"I'm the only one on the team who doesn't tape anymore,'' he said. "The last doctor that did my surgery said the tape would only make it worse and make me weaker, so I've been playing just with my socks for the last six years.'' With no increased vulnerability to sprains, knock on wood.

The Cavs are about to undergo another makeover of their own by bringing back Varejao, and they may yet make another move to acquire a point guard. (And it is true that Jason Kidd would love to play there, as hard as it would be to assemble that blockbuster.) In the meantime, Ilgauskas plans to continue exploiting opportunities as they arrive. No longer is he being phased out.

"I can make passes out of the double team, I can find people,'' Ilgauskas said. "Before I really couldn't find my place, but this year with the stuff we're doing, I feel a lot more comfortable because the ball does get to me more.''

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