In Brad Stevens' pre-game presser, he talked about "prioritizing skill in the way we're playing right now" and as Celtics.com's Marc D'Amico points out, that has fueled Boston's small ball strategy and shortened what was a deep bench to start the season to a tight nine-man rotation. David Lee aside, the biggest casualty has been Tyler Zeller. After being a big part of the playoff run last season to coming into training camp with rumblings of a possible extension to losing his starting spot and then playing time completely, Zeller has been the odd man out.
It would be unfair to call Zeller unskilled, but he doesn't have the versatility that some of the other big men have. Offensively, he doesn't stretch the floor like Kelly Olynyk. Defensively, he can't switch on pick-and-rolls like Jonas Jerebko. He's not a rebounder like Jared Sullinger or a rim protector like Amir Johnson. He's not the ideal candidate for Stevens' read-and-react offense, but in a game where shots just aren't falling and the team is getting beat up on the glass, Zeller simplified the Celtics approach: box out and play PnR.
Last night, the Celtics went up against a bigger, more physical Knicks team. Their basic scheme was to post up smaller guards and camp out in the paint for offensive rebounds and putbacks. New York scored 22 second chance points on 16 offensive rebounds (Robin Lopez with 11) and they seemed to want to punish Boston for trying to play small. This should have been a game that Sully and Johnson thrived in, the type of bar fight that more traditional bigs like themselves live for. But at the end of the night, their 31 minutes combined didn't come close to Zeller's production in 26+ minutes where he was a team high +11.
The fourth quarter featured somewhat of a hybrid lineup with Zeller as a traditional 5, Olynyk stretching the floor at power forward, Evan Turner as the ball handler, and Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart on the wings. With Zeller in the game, the offense could be initiated off of pick and rolls with their center. He's got great hands for a big guy and he works quick with the ball in the paint. Of Zeller's eight points in the fourth quarter, six of them came out of pick-and-roll actions with Turner and Smart. For what it's worth, the Celtics rank 28th in the league (6.9th percentile just ahead of the Knicks and the Lakers) in pick-and-roll scoring by the roll man, but against the Knicks, it was Boston's bread and butter down the stretch. And because Zeller was forcing the defense to sink, that created enough room for Turner to score 6 with his mid-range game.
It wasn't just the scoring. Up until the final frame, New York had outrebounded Boston 44-30 (including 14 OR's) between the first and third quarters. In the fourth when Zeller played all 12 minutes, the Celtics had the edge 15-6 with TZ grabbing four off the offensive glass. Of the four bigs that played significant minutes, Zeller had the highest offensive and defensive rating for a net of 20.7.
His teammates showered him with praise (Crowder quipped that he was "the best professional he ever saw") and that's nice, but I still think that Tyler Zeller could play a big part to not only this season, but maybe as a future Celtic in the rebuild. There are certainly deficiencies in his game--mainly those that Sullinger and Johnson excel in--but as Zeller enters the second half of the season and then eventually restricted free agency, keep in mind that the 26-year-old provides a change of pace to the team. Think of him as a left handed flame thrower in your bullpen. He's simple and you know what you're going to get from him. If Danny doesn't make a deal before the deadline or in the draft, there's going to be a roster crunch and a guy with Zeller's low usage rate and impending free agency is going to be hard to keep, but man, does he throw a mean fast ball when you need it.