NEW YORK — As forward Kelly Olynyk stood at his locker surrounded by a crush of reporters, Tyler Zeller sat in the next stall, almost lost amid the throng, and quietly put on his shoes.
It was a rare moment when a 7-footer was hidden, but for Zeller it was probably a familiar feeling. He was an important part of this team’s success last year. He started 59 games and played in all 82 and was an effective and efficient option in the post.
But this year brought change. It brought new players and, eventually, a shift toward smaller, more skilled lineups. And that left Zeller languishing on the bench for considerable stretches, sometimes for games at a time.
But all along, coach Brad Stevens has said there would be nights when he was needed. And on Tuesday against the Knicks, with Boston’s long-range shooters scuffling and the Knicks pounding Boston in the post, Zeller provided an important lift. He played 26 minutes and finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds — all season highs — as the Celtics surged to a 97-89 win.
“I was going to do everything I could to stay out there,” Zeller said. “I never expected to stay out there that long, but it was great to be able to. I made a couple jump shots. Obviously there were a lot of things I could get better at, but a lot of things that it was nice to get back in a rhythm with.”
With the Celtics clinging to a 5-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter, they turned to the unlikely trio of Olynyk, Zeller and Evan Turner to carry them to the finish. Turner directed effective pick-and-rolls with Zeller, and Olynyk wiggled free for layups, as the three scored 25 of Boston’s 27 fourth-quarter points.
Of course, Olynyk and Turner are assets in the regular rotation and both have had shimmering moments this season. So Zeller was the one who drew extensive praise afterward, both for his performance, his positive attitude, and persistence.
“There’s not a person around not happy to see him do well,” Stevens said. “He has sacrificed quite a bit throughout the whole season for our team. And we really trust him. He played great tonight.”
“He’s being a professional,” forward Jae Crowder said. “He’s being the best professional I ever saw. For a young guy to just stay locked in and stay the course coming in each and every day and working, my hat’s off to him, and I applaud him.”
Turner finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds and Isaiah Thomas added 20 points and 8 assists.
For the Celtics, this win provided a quick revival after their five-game winning streak was snapped in Orlando on Sunday night. And it was encouraging to defeat a solid team on the road on a night when they were scuffling for long stretches.
With Knicks center Robin Lopez destroying the Celtics with offensive rebounds, Stevens called upon Zeller at the start of the second quarter.
He quickly converted a difficult layup that was followed by an 18-footer, as the Celtics took their largest lead of the half, 29-22.
Zeller has sat out 18 games and entered Tuesday playing just 8.8 minutes per contest in the others. He said it has not been easy to stay ready, but he has tried his best.
“I love playing,” Zeller said. “And when you don’t get to play it makes it tough. So I just try to work out as much as possible, try to stay in shape, and it kind of keeps me going. And then when you get opportunities you’ve got to take advantage of them.”
Despite Zeller’s strong play, the Celtics’ 3-point shooting was too abysmal for them to extend or even maintain that cushion. Six players missed 3-pointers in the first half, as Boston started 0 for 13 from beyond the arc. The Celtics were also outrebounded, 31-19, including nine offensive boards by Lopez. Still, Boston trailed just 47-45 at halftime.
During the break, they focused on limiting Lopez’s second-chance opportunities, stopping Carmelo Anthony from working in the post, and moving the ball quickly and with a purpose. They knew they would not go 0 for 13 from 3 again, and they did not.
With 8:39 left in the third quarter Crowder hit a 3 from the right corner. Two minutes later, Thomas added another, and suddenly the Celtics had a 59-53 lead.
Boston scored the first 6 points of the final period, too, as Avery Bradley blocked Sasha Vujacic at the rim and Marcus Smart found Zeller for a layup at the other end, making it 76-65. The Knicks used a 7-0 burst that was capped by an Arron Afflalo 3-pointer to pull within 81-77 with 7:36 left. But then Turner made three jump shots over a three-minute stretch, the last 14-footer making it 89-81.
In the second half, Lopez had just two offensive rebounds and the Celtics made 3 of 6 3-point attempts.
“Once we started getting rebounds, we started making shots,” Stevens said. “Like, it’s kind of funny how the game rewards you in that way.”