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As Celtics surge toward playoffs, Tyler Zeller finding comfort zone

Celtics’ Tyler Zeller led the team with 26 points in Monday’s 108-89 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Tyler Zeller said that earlier this season Celtics coaches sometimes became frustrated when he passed up wide-open jump-shots. Zeller’s hesitancy was partly because he knew that with Rajon Rondo at point guard, he should always be prepared to roll to the basket. But it also was possible that he simply wasn’t comfortable yet.

He’d played just 15 minutes a game for the Cavaliers last season, and suddenly he was in a new system with a new team. He has since settled in nicely and is in the midst of the best season of his three-year career.

The 7-footer scored a career-high 26 points in the Celtics’ win over the 76ers on Monday night. Over his last two games he is 19 for 25 from the floor.


“I knew [coming to Boston] was a great opportunity,” Zeller said. “I didn’t realize how great of an opportunity it was. I didn’t realize I’d be this comfortable or fit in this well or enjoy playing with my teammates like this as much as I do.”

Among players who have appeared in 30 games or more this season, Zeller’s offensive rating — a metric that measures the number of points produced per 100 possessions — is 119, ranking 21st in the league, by far the highest of any Celtic.

His mid-range game has been effective, too. He is shooting 48.5 percent from 8 feet and beyond, including 53.1 percent from 16-24 feet.

“He shoots the 17-footer with ease and regularity, and he shoots it well,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

Tough games ahead

While it appears playoff fever is beginning to emerge in the city of Boston, the Celtics’ road to the postseason will be difficult. Entering Wednesday’s game with the Oklahoma City Thunder, 11 of the Celtics’ final 16 opponents would reach the playoffs if the season ended today. They also have games left against three Western Conference juggernauts fighting for playoff seeding — OKC, San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers.


The Celtics also have two more games against Cleveland (43-26), two against Milwaukee (34-32) and two against Toronto (40-27), all playoff-bound teams. What’s more, seven of the final eight games will come against potential playoff teams, including another meeting with the Indiana Pacers, who are tied with the Celtics for the seventh playoff slot.

The combined winning percentage of the Celtics’ final opponents is 54.9 percent, and just two — Detroit and New York — have little or no chance at the postseason.

NCAA picks

Celtics players and coaches were asked for their NCAA Tournament picks on Monday night, and undefeated Kentucky, unsurprisingly, was the most popular choice to win it all. Five of the eight respondents picked the Wildcats, including rookie James Young, who started for last season’s UK team that reached the national title game.

“They’re on a roll right now,” Young said. “They’re doing great as a team, and I don’t think anybody is going to stop them.”

Kelly Olynyk and Shavlik Randolph both picked their alma maters, Gonzaga and Duke, to take the crown. Evan Turner picked his former school, Ohio State, to reach the Final Four, but still predicted Kentucky would win the title. Zeller declined to pick a champion, because he doesn’t think his North Carolina Tar Heels will win this year, but would not pick against them.

Olynyk struggling

It seems Olynyk is scuffling offensively again. He scored 1 point on 0-for-6 shooting in the Celtics’ 108-89 win over the Philadelphia 76ers Monday and is 1 for 12 with 3 points over the past two games. In eight games since returning from a sprained right ankle, Olynyk is 18 for 58 overall and 6 for 25 from the 3-point line.


After going 2 for 17 in the first three games of his return, Olynyk scored 38 points over the next three games. But he labored Saturday against Indiana, as he was hesitant to attack the basket or shoot from the perimeter. Stevens said he will continue to exhibit faith in his second-year forward.

“There’s two parts about Kelly,” Stevens said. “No. 1 is we believe in him. No. 2 is even when he’s struggling, they still have to guard him. You have to extend your defense when he’s in the game.” . . . The Celtics on Tuesday assigned Young to the Maine Red Claws of the D-League. The rookie had played a total of just seven minutes and scored 3 points over the last five games, due in large part to the emergence of forward Gigi Datome. Young is shooting just 35.2 percent from the floor this season.

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com