USA Today Sports/Winslow Townson

Kyrie Irving vs. Dennis Smith Jr. poses exciting matchup for present and future

Greg Levinsky
December 06, 2017 - 10:40 pm

In a battle of the established versus high-potential talent, point guards Kyrie Irving and Dennis Smith Jr. duked it out on the TD Garden parquet in a 97-90 Celtics victory over the Mavericks on Wednesday night. And we learned that this matchup — while limited in exposure given their out-of-conference situation — could be fun for a long, long time.

At just 25-years-old, Irving is in his seventh NBA season and first in Boston. To put Irving's career in context, he made his first All-Star Game when Smith Jr. was in the eighth grade. And despite playing in just his 23rd professional game, the 20-year-old Smith Jr. showed no fear in playing against one of the NBA’s premier scorers.

After he was schooled by Irving in their first head-to-head, a 110-102 Celtics overtime win led by Irving’s season-high 47 points, Smith Jr. scored the game’s opening basket on a lay-up. Then after smothering Irving and rebounding a missed shot by Al Horford, Smith Jr. went coast-to-coast, and forced an early timeout from C’s coach Brad Stevens.

Irving settled down and promptly found Horford for a deep jumper on the next play and made a come-from-behind block on a Smith Jr. drive. Later in the quarter, Irving fouled Smith Jr., who gave Irving a little push in retaliation. Both received technical fouls.

“Mixups in the game, that’s always part of it,” said Irving, who scored a game-high 23 points. “People bumping, trying to prove something. That’s always fun. It stays within the game. You understand that, it’s a competitive streak.”

As an avid student of the game himself, Irving said he’s been aware of Smith Jr. long before the duo exchanged shoves and pleasantries of an early flare-up.

“I’ve been watching him since he was in middle school when he was doing windmills on his team in North Carolina,” Irving said. “I’ve been studying him for a while.”

Irving netted 19 of those 23 points when he and Smith Jr. were on the floor and Smith Jr scored all of his 12 points when the two shared the court for a total of 25:54.

After the first frame the standouts recorded seven points apiece in 8:33 of time together on the floor with the game knotted at 18.

Both re-entered the game with 7:28 remaining in the first half. While Irving scored the first two buckets of the stage including rattling home a finger roll from the right side, the Mavericks stormed out to 10 point halftime lead. Smith Jr nailed a left corner three after Irving’s second bucket and added another score as each had 12 first-half.

“That’s a beautiful part of the game,” Irving said. “When you get matched up, it’s always an exciting matchup. I’ve had the unique opportunity to play well against some of the great, best point guards and struggle against them as well.”

Early on, it was Smith Jr. and the Mavericks that got the better of the matchup, as they outscored the Celtics 39-28 when the two shared the floor in the first half. But when they both started the second half, it was the Celtics that indulged themselves with a 12-0 to tie it up at 59-59 just under four minutes into the half, and on a Kyrie drive.

With the C’s charging, Irving again found Horford, this time for a right corner three, which gave the Celtics their first lead since the closing minutes of the first quarter. It was in the third quarter that Irving and the Celtics outscored Smith Jr. 15-4 in the 5:41 they spent on the floor together. It was enough to draw the duo and their teams at an even 43-43 when Irving and Smith Jr. were sharing the floor in a head-to-head.

But they matched up for just 3:02 in the fourth quarter as Irving dominated down the stretch. Whether it be a driving layup on a triple team or slicing the Mavericks defense for a traditional three point play, Irving proved too much for Smith Jr. and the Mavericks to handle, as he once again took control late, willing the Celtics to victory.

“Irving made some amazing plays, which he always does,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “We were never able to get any traction, get enough stops and then run-outs, aor stops and then scores to make up the difference in the run in the second half.”

“I think he’d prefer to go in all the time,” Stevens said about managing Irving’s minutes, especially in the fourth quarter. “We’re trying to manage the season appropriately.”

The dichotomy between Irving and Smith Jr. was not as vast as it appeared in their first meeting, which required Carlisle to move Yogi Ferrell into a more hands-on role against Irving instead of Smith Jr., but it was the Celtics bench that dominated en route to ending the five-game homestand with a victory.

And a peek at what could be a tremendous head-to-head for years to come.

“It’s always fun especially when the game is close,” Irving said after the victory, the C’s 22nd in 26 games this season. “It’s fun for me because you really have to go into your bag of tricks and prepare yourself for whatever the defense throws at you.”

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