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Tyler Zeller: The Celtics' unexpected streak buster

BOSTON -- There were times in recent weeks when it seemed like Isaiah Thomas' single-season record for consecutive games as the Boston Celtics' outright leading scorer might not end. Thomas has been so dominant in the points column that it was fair to wonder whether he might push what was a 17-game streak entering Friday's action straight to the finish line of the 2015-16 regular season.

And even if you thought the stretch might end, chances are you wouldn't have picked fourth-year center Tyler Zeller to be the streak buster.

Thrust into elevated minutes when the injury-depleted Milwaukee Bucks leaned on bigger lineups, Zeller responded by matching his career high with a team-best 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting to go along with four blocks, three rebounds and two assists over 25 minutes in a 124-109 triumph at TD Garden.

"I’m so mad at him," Thomas said before a smile crept across his face. "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."

With the Celtics healthy for one of the few times since the All-Star break, one might have expected coach Brad Stevens to pare his rotation down against the Bucks. After all, Boston had played its best basketball of the season when leaning on a firm nine-man rotation.

But the Celtics found themselves in an early 11-point hole, thanks in part to the exploits of Giannis Antetokounmpo (27 points, seven rebounds, seven assists). A healthy dose of Avery Bradley and some foul trouble helped corral Antetokounmpo. And Boston's second unit erased the deficit with backup guards Evan Turner and Marcus Smart -- nine assists apiece -- spearheading a pass-happy attack that helped Boston shoot 56.4 percent from the floor.

That ball movement often set Zeller up for an array of easy finishes around the basket, many of which were the result of running with Smart and Turner in transition. The Bucks seemed generally unwilling (and uninterested) in defending the paint, which helped Boston score 70 points there, including 18 by Zeller.

As for breaking Thomas' streak, Zeller was none the wiser.

"What was his streak, highest scorer for the team? I didn't even know that," Zeller said. "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."

When Thomas was told that Boston is 24-9 this season when it generates assists on at least 65 percent of its total makes, he joked, "I don't know what you just said," which drew laughter from reporters, then maniacal laughter from Thomas' two sons, Jaiden and James, who joined their father inside the media scrum.

The Celtics finished with 35 assists on their 44 makes (79.5 percent) and fueled their triple-digit outburst by generating easy looks via crisp ball movement.

"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."

For Zeller, the big night was particularly satisfying because his playing time has been sporadic lately. He logged consecutive DNPs during a back-to-back against Portland and Golden State last week, then he played 18 minutes against the Lakers on Sunday. He entered Friday's game having played a total of 51 minutes over Boston's past eight games, including four DNPs.

Zeller said he has remained ready for whenever his number might be called. And despite a rocky start on Friday, in which some of his shots wouldn't drop, he grew more confident as a few bounces eventually went his way.

"It's always nice to see your first shot go in," Zeller said. "Once you get one to go in, hopefully your confidence can keep building from there. I started to see some of the reads that I knew I had to make for this game, and it's always nice when you settle in to that."

The Celtics typically have struggled during Zeller's floor time. He's the only non-rookie regular with a negative net rating as Boston is minus-1.7 during his floor time. During Friday's game, Zeller owned a net rating of plus-20.6, which was only the fourth-best mark on the team because of the dominance of fellow reserves Kelly Olynyk (plus-45), Smart (plus-42.3) and Turner (plus-38) were. But it speaks to Zeller's overall impact, especially on the offensive end.

"Me and Zeller always have pretty great chemistry," Turner said. "He’s a big target. I think he makes sure he runs the floor and he’s always in the right spot. I think he made himself available and definitely helped us out a lot."

As Jared Sullinger added, "Tyler’s just Tyler. Tyler does what he always does. And he’s effective that way."