The last time Tyler Zeller subbed into a game at TD Garden, he entered as a last-ditch effort for Brad Stevens to initiate consistent play against the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. By the end of 2016-17 his role had transitioned into a hopeful spark plug in the front court two seasons after he started at center for Boston in the 2015 playoffs, Stevens’ first appearance as Celtics head coach.
Through combinations of trades and departures in free agency 11 players, including Zeller, departed Boston over the summer. That’s led to 11 games entering Sunday against old friends who took the Celtics to the ECF just seven months ago.
Zeller did not find his new team as easily as Kelly Olynyk signed long-term in Miami, nor did he rake in the dollars of his former front-court mate (just over $1-million). Searching until September, Zeller latched on with the Nets.
On Sunday, he received no video tribute, but was announced as a starter for the 20th game in a row. Brooklyn has won eight games over that stretch, 40 percent of the 20 they won in 2016-17 period.
Brooklyn, once latched at the hip with the Celtics thanks to the infamous Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade that shipped four first round picks to the C’s, now has Zeller as a link between old and new.
Zeller found opportunity with the Celtics in the 2013 Cavaliers salary dump to sign LeBron James that eventually yielded Isaiah Thomas. Zeller played in all 82 for the 2014-15 C’s, the high-energy team that turned an 15-26 first half record into a seven seed. His 10 points per game and nearly six rebounds on 54 percent shooting should have landed him a long-term deal.
Instead he returned on a 2-year, $16-million deal with a non-guaranteed second season and Amir Johnson’s arrival relegated him to the bench. In spots Zeller shined, once beating the Jazz at the buzzer with a remarkable finish inside. Others rebounded and defended better than him, then Al Horford arrived and the team’s ambitions drove higher.
As Zeller arrived back at TD Garden, announced last in the Nets lineup to the applause of those who appreciated the effort he provided, he’s emerged in a situation familiar to the Celtics. While Brooklyn doesn’t have the treasure-trove of assets Danny Ainge did (thanks to Brooklyn), Sean Marks acquired player assets such as D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll. Spencer Dinwiddie will likely be in the most-improved running, and the team bought low on Jahlil Okafor from the 76ers.
They’ve also developed a culture under Kenny Atkinson that nearly mirrors the 2014-15 Celts. It’s pace-and-space to the extreme, running the floor and generating as many shot attempts as humanely possible. Almost every C’s player under Stevens has the ability to shoot threes, Zeller was a rare exception only taking one in 193 games for Boston.
Zeller, letting it fly outside as well. I remember C’s mulled getting him some looks from three but it never came into fruition in games pic.twitter.com/DLaroX2WWL— Bobby Manning (@RealBobManning) December 31, 2017
Through 28 games in Brooklyn, he’s taken 18. An hour prior to tip on Sunday he warmed up from from the left corner, while seconds later Okafor started unloading threes from the right. The Nets aren’t winning yet, but they’re developing a competitive, modern basketball culture in the C’s footsteps that showed in the 108-105 loss Sunday.
The first possession back in Boston was not pretty for Zeller, as he rolled inside off a feed and got swatted by Aron Baynes. He front rimmed a layup a few possessions later, and fell on his chest scrapping for a loose ball. As the teams ran the other way, he slid across the floor in the backcourt and Boston went ahead 16-5 behind a Kyrie Irving early explosion.
Despite the rough start Zeller found his rebuttal, as the Nets did most of Sunday, with his three-point shot. Six minutes in Dinwiddie drove and kicked to him in the right corner and Zeller drilled a three in front of the team he never did that once for. He’s now 7-of-18 outside in 2017-18 (38.8 percent).
After his three, Brooklyn went on a 6-of-8 shooting tear, capped with a Caris LeVert three-point play charging through Marcus Morris in the post. The Nets had worked the lead down to six, and wouldn’t go away until the closing seconds of the game.
“It makes you really appreciate how good our team was when you look across the league and see how many of these guys are starting, playing great,” Stevens said.
But while old players have punched at the C’s, they’re now 7-5 in games against teammates from last season. Another one comes next on Wednesday, when Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas (inactive) make their return to Boston.
By halftime, the Nets worked within 61-59 after hitting four threes and shooting 12-of-26 in the second. The Celts shot 10-of-19 in the frame, but Brooklyn’s pace produced more shot attempts and a win in the quarter.
That quarter win didn’t translate to the result, even after a 10-0 run, capped with a possession where Brooklyn hauled in four offensive rebounds to set up Quincy Acy for a three, pulled the Nets within three with the final possession.
Dinwiddie ran free with a shot to tie the game with just over 10 seconds left and let it fly. But it hit left rim and the Celtics escaped.
“They got a lot of shooters, which opens up a lot for them,” Terry Rozier said. “It’s a tough team. We beat a good team today.”
Brooklyn’s record may not indicate them reaching good status yet, and injuries/roster instability have not helped that. But the flashes are there, with Zeller in the middle of it all to this point.
“Tyler since he’s been inserted into their starting lineup has been very consistent,” Stevens said. “He’s always been able to score. I told our team the other day he’s probably the best rim-runner that I’ve ever coached. As far as getting down the floor in transition, he flies down there.”