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BOSTON – Tyler Zeller started 59 games at center for the Celtics last year, including Boston’s final 35 regular season and playoff contests.
But the starting job was his to lose entering the 2015-16 season, considering the additions of veteran big men Amir Johnson and David Lee.
The starting rotation is still not set in stone, but Zeller certainly made his case to remain the starter Thursday night, when he more than held his own against a very physical New York Knicks frontcourt.
The 7-footer banged bodies with bruisers Robin Lopez and Kyle O’Quinn in the post, and also made his first four shot attempts of the night, sparking the C’s to an early lead and an eventual 99-85 win.
Zeller finished the night with 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting, and showed off the wide variety of ways that he can score the rock.
“Tyler’s got an array of shots from a scoring standpoint and has really made those shots at a high rate for the better part of the last nine months,” Stevens said after the game. “A lot of his shots don’t have any physicality required because he gets the shot off before any contact. He’s got a nice little runner, a nice little floater for a guy his size, and he works hard at developing those shots.”
Zeller's defense also stood out Thursday night, as he successfully boxed out Lopez, New York's 7-foot center, on multiple occasions.
“I thought he did a good job on defense on Lopez, a guy who really hurt us the first time we played, as far as just from a physical standpoint,” said Stevens.
When New York beat Boston Friday night at Madison Square Garden, Lopez’s physical presence played a big role. He was only on the floor for 14 minutes, but he fought his way for seven boards during that short timespan.
This time around, Lopez was limited to just one rebound during 22 minutes of court time. Zeller, meanwhile, grabbed five boards during 20 minutes of action while playing a large role in restraining Lopez.
Another guy on the C’s who is great at keeping opposing bigs at check in the paint is Johnson, who many believed could be a candidate to snag Boston’s starting center role. However, numerous NBA pundits now believe the gritty rim protector may function best by coming off the bench as a pick-and-roll mate for Isaiah Thomas.
Meanwhile, Zeller has struck up nice chemistry with fellow big man, Lee, who started next to him at the 4 Thursday night.
“I think we complement each other well,” Zeller said of his on-court relationship with Lee. “He does a great job looking high-low and making the right play. He does a great job in the pick-and-roll and I like to be able to work off the baseline on the backside of that.”
Overall, Thursday’s starting unit of Zeller, Lee, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart, seemed to thrive. Zeller believes that’s “because we move the ball so quick. It’s tough to guard if you can get the ball from one side to the other and the defense is still coming across and you can attack. I think that it says a lot about how unselfish we are and how much we can play together.”
Although Stevens hasn’t voiced any rotational decisions, it’s clear that he likes what he sees from that starting group.
“If we decide to start that first unit like today, that unit’s got a nice chemistry,” said Stevens. “David kind of handles passes and directs, and Tyler does what Tyler does, and the guards are great cutters, and when David has the ball there’s a lot of cutting, a lot of movement. And they all have skills so that’s a nice combination.”
Zeller displayed a wide variety of skills Thursday night against a physically gifted frontcourt.
We’ll just have to wait and see if he’s made enough of a case to take the season-opening tip Wednesday night, when the C’s kick off their campaign against the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden.