HOUSTON — The most difficult part of Greg Smith’s night came after the final buzzer, when a childhood hero told him he’d had a great game.
Kevin Garnett, who entered the NBA when Smith was 4 years old, approached the Houston Rockets’ second-year big man after Houston’s 101-89 win over the Boston Celtics on Friday at Toyota Center, and offered a quick word of encouragement.
And that’s when Smith had to fight the urge to gush.
“I said, ‘I appreciate that,'” Smith said. “I wanted to say more, but I kept calm.”
Smith outplayed his hero Friday night, scoring 20 points on 8-for-9 shooting to go with six rebounds. Garnett had 14 points and five boards and spent the final few minutes of the game on the bench.
Houston, for once, had it locked up early.
That had not been the Rockets’ bent this year, but James Harden beat the shot clock with a long 3-pointer off a broken play to put Houston up by eight with four minutes left, and Boston never recovered.
It has been a feel-it-out season for the Rockets over their first 22 games, but they appear to have found something in a couple of their least ballyhooed acquisitions. Smith, who began his professional career in Mexico, spent most of last season with the Rockets D-League affiliate and was not expected to play much of a role this season. He has teamed with guard Toney Douglas, a free agent acquisition who played for the Knicks last year, to give the Rockets some punch off the bench.
Douglas plays the point, but his real value is that he gives the Rockets some 3-point shooting that starter Jeremy Lin does not. Smith is more or less an ox in shorts. He’s a muscular 6-10, 250 pounds and his role for the Rockets seems to be as follows:
Hang out near the baseline in the paint. Wait for somebody to forget about you. Catch the ball. Dunk the ball.
At this, he is exceptional.
“He kind of knows his game,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.
Smith is particularly good at catching the ball, a skill that often eludes men his size. He may have figured out that if you stand in the right place, and you catch the ball, and you go up strong with it, well, there are going to be nights you score 20 points and outplay one of your idols.
“I was in the right spots at the right time,” Smith said.
So the Rockets, as it now appears, have a fine cast of role players. Smith and Douglas are helpful. Starting small forward Chandler Parsons is the best player on the floor some nights, and Friday might have been one of them. He fell two assists and a rebound short of a triple double, and scored 15 points on seven shot attempts.
With one star player, Harden, that’s about enough to be average, or a little better. They probably are a better team now than their 11-11 record would indicate. They have had a tendency this year to start slowly and finish weakly, and just straight-up wreck shop in between.
Mostly they have attributed this to their immaturity, both individually and as a collective. They have the youngest roster in the NBA, and most of them are new to each other.
But with the season now a quarter over, there are some signs these young guys are figuring it out.
On Friday, they tried to use that youth to their advantage against the Celtics, who have a lot of guys who went to high school in the `90s. The battle was plain to see. Houston wanted to run on missed shots and move quickly in the half-court offense. Boston did not.
The Celtics had just gone to two overtimes in Dallas two days before, and the Rockets thought they could take advantage of some tired legs.
“Our coaches told us they came off a double-overtime game against Dallas, so they’re kind of tired, push the issue,” Smith said. “If we get them running and they have to play our style of basketball, we can get them tired and win the game.”
It appeared to work. In the third quarter, Houston shot 61 percent and scored 32 points to take control of the game. Boston never led again.
“In the third quarter, I don’t think we stopped them any time they came down the court,” Garnett said. “We need to create some kind of defensive consistency, and we just weren’t able to do that. The second half, Houston got into a rhythm. That was undeniable.”