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Kyrie Irving is the head of the snake

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With Marcus Smart out of the lineup, Kyrie Irving picked it up on the defensive end.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe it wasn’t a deliberate nod to his ailing back court mate, but after being asked about his defense that helped spark a 22-3 run start the second half, Kyrie Irving called himself the “head of the snake.” Marcus Smart, of course, is sometimes referred to as The Cobra, a nickname he earned for his cobra-quick strike on the defensive end.

Irving didn’t exactly have his sharpest game on offense in his return to the NBA Playoffs since June 12th, 2017. He tied for highest scorer honors with Marcus Morris with 20 points and 7 assists, but shot only 6-for-17 from the field. However, he did channel his inner Smart with his defensive effort. The Celtics only allowed 53 points in the first three quarters of Game 1 with Irving aggressively jumping into passing lanes and staying attached to ball handlers.

With Smart sidelined for several weeks with a partially torn oblique muscle, Irving’s intensity in the back court is a tone setter for the defensive minded Celtics. “Set an example for myself, first and foremost, just to go out there and throw myself in there. Obviously, I appreciate the compliment, but I definitely wasn’t over every screen,” Irving smiled when former CelticsBlogger and The Athletic’s Jared Weiss noted his increased effort on D.

“For me, I just try to be really aggressive on the ball, be in the right spots. I had some costly fouls here and there that could have gone either way, but I just want to stay aggressive and really be the head of the snake and stay aggressive on the ball. Defensively, I know that’s where we make our mark and when we’re going out in transition and getting stops, that’s when we’re at our best.”

The PacersDarren Collison isn’t exactly the tip of a spear of an offensive juggernaut. In the regular season, Indiana averaged just under 105 points per game vs. Boston and only scored only 74 in Game 1. Irving wasn’t the sole reason for Boston’s 77.1 DefRtg on Sunday or can he replace the soul of the defense, but he’s making himself a factor on that side of the ball.

Irving collected two steals in the game, but those counting stats don’t quantify his effect on defense. He may not be as good as Smart pealing off screens and recovering on shooters, but he didn’t die on screens either. Collison made just 3-of-11 field goal attempts, including 1-for-7 in the mid-range.

After the game, Irving dedicated the Celtics first post season win to Smart, saying that “he (Smart) shapes our team really well.” Game 1 may not have been the kind of performance that Celtics fans have been waiting for out of Kyrie. You could argue, however, that he’s instead embraced the Celtics Way more now than he ever has.