BOSTON (CBS) – As Isaiah Thomas put together an incredible 17-game streak of leading the Celtics in scoring, Tyler Zeller mostly served as a spectator. The reserve center only played in 13 of those 17 contests, chipping in 10 to 15 minutes a game most nights.
That playing time has been on the decline even more for Zeller in recent weeks however, as Jae Crowder has returned from injury and the Celtics’ frontline returns to front strength. Playing purely in a situational role has been a tough switch for the seven-footer who started for Boston at center throughout their playoff run in second half of last season.
Despite being uncertain if and when he’s going to play against any particular opponent, Zeller has remained patient and ready for Brad Stevens throughout his fourth NBA season. That attitude paid off in a big way Friday night as Zeller snapped Thomas’ team-leading scoring streak with a season-high 26 points in a 124-109 win over the Bucks.
“What was his streak, highest scorer for the team? I didn’t even know that,” Zeller said of the incredible run by Thomas. “I think he’ll be happy with the way we won. I think he really just wants to win, and that’s what we love about him. He’s a great scorer, somebody who can score — best scorer 17 nights in a row — but really, he just wants to win, and I think he’ll be happy coming out the way we did.”
Thomas couldn’t help but take a playful jab at Zeller before praising the big man after his impressive night.
“I’m so mad at him,” Thomas said jokingly of his streak ending after the game. “No, no. I’m actually proud of him, because he just works so hard and he took advantage of his opportunity tonight. I’m proud of him having a good game like he did.”
Milwaukee was without several key guards (Khris Middleton, Jerryd Bayless, Michael Carter-Williams) in the matchup, forcing head coach Jason Kidd to lean on bigger lineups for the matchup against Boston. Stevens responded to that choice by rolling out a big frontline of his own for extended minutes, and Zeller ran with the opportunity to put together one of his best career performances.
The 26-year-old filled up the box score with 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting and added three rebounds, two assists and four blocks in just 25 minutes of action. The Celtics shot a scorching hot 56 percent from the field in the contest and got to the free throw line 38 times, led by nine attempts by Zeller. The big man’s efficiency around the basket and getting to the line proved crucial in Boston recovering from a early double-digit deficit and outscoring the Bucks by 20 points over the final three quarters.
“I thought that Tyler kind of gave us a lift in that second half, because he got us a couple points running the floor,” Stevens said. “Obviously, those add up, and they got spread out as we continued to move the ball better against the blitz and made the right reads.”
The performance by Zeller and the rest of the Celtics’ bench gave the starters some crucial rest before Saturday night’s showdown against the Hawks in Atlanta. The winner of that contest holds the inside track on the No. 3 seed in the East with just three games remaining in the regular season.
It remains to be seen whether Zeller earned himself more minutes for that matchup, but if Friday was any indication, he will be a good option for Stevens to turn for a scoring boost down the stretch.