Houston Chronicle

Seeing ‘the real Jabari’ show up fuels optimism

- Jonathan Feigen ON THE ROCKETS jonathan.feigen@houstonchr­onicle.com twitter.com/jonathan_feigen

INDIANAPOL­IS — Jabari Smith Jr. wanted the ball. He wanted the shot.

A week ago, he could not make those shots, or almost any others. By the time the game was on the line Thursday, the Rockets down to their last chance, he was certain he could not miss.

Smith capped the best game of his career with his best shot.

With the Rockets trailing the Pacers by three with seven seconds left, he set a screen for Jalen Green as he took off past the 3-point line, the Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard on his hip.

Seeing Green blanketed, Smith not only broke toward the wing, he called for the ball. He caught Jae’Sean Tate’s inbounds pass inside the 3-point line, then with one dribble and a bounce past the line, went up for a turnaround 3 over Aaron Nesmith, nailing it with four seconds left.

“I just trusted myself and let it go,” Smith, who had a career-high 30 points, said. “I told Daishen (Nix), ‘I’m going to make this.’ ”

Moments later, the Rockets and Pacers would go to overtime, with the Pacers surging to a 134-125 win. But on the night the Rockets were officially eliminated from the postseason, there was something more significan­t about Smith’s performanc­e than just flashes of rookie potential.

If the Rockets’ youngest player could turn things around so significan­tly — going from a 1 of 16 3-point shooting stretch over four games to making 8-of-16 in the four games since — the NBA’s youngest rotation had reason to believe they could escape the struggles to build something greater.

“When you go through as much adversity as we’ve gone through, when you go through as many hard times as we’ve gone through this season and fight back and you find some success at the end of it, it doesn’t have to be just one guy. It can be a bunch of guys,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “Then, it’s a collective group. Jabari’s just an example of the fight and the stick-toitivenes­s that we preach on a daily basis.”

The Rockets had some of the usual shortcomin­gs. They attempted fewer 3s (17) than the Pacers made (18). And they showed their most reliable strengths, scoring 82 points in the paint and outscoring the Pacers 23-5 in second-chance points.

With the Pacers making 48 percent of their shots, including 40 percent of their 3s, the Rockets’ defense was difficult to find to start and finish the game — a reminder that the Rockets had not changed too much. They never found an answer for Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton, who had a career-high 19 assists and scored 12 of his 29 points in overtime.

But there was a sense of hope the positives from Thursday’s comeback from down 17, and particular­ly Smith’s breakthrou­gh, could be signs of sustainabl­e improvemen­t.

“It’s progress. It’s progress,” Silas said. “It’s fight. Being down a bunch, fighting back, finding lineups that hadn’t played together much. Jabari seeing the ball going in. Yes, progress. Progress.

“We have to find a way to shoot more 3s. And then we were 27-of-52 at the rim, not just at the paint, but at the rim. So, finishing at the rim. But we’re getting there. And we’re fighting. And we’re driving the ball and driving the ball hard. We’re getting to the free-throw line, and we could have gotten there more. But these guys, with 17 games to go are fighting really hard, and that’s progress.”

The Rockets could get more drive-and-kick 3s with the return of Kevin Porter Jr., likely on Saturday against the Bulls after he sat out Thursday with a bruised left thigh.

His backcourt partner, Green, produced after a slow start, finishing with 24 points. He is averaging 21.5 points since the AllStar break, roughly his average overall this season. But he has made 44 percent of his shots, 36.8 percent from the 3-point line, in the six games he has played since his groin injury even after Thursday’s 8-of-23. His defense has picked up in those games. But when he was asked about Smith, Green was as enthusiast­ic as anything he has addressed before.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” he said. “We know the real Jabari. He just showed it tonight. That was a good thing. Hopefully, he can take that momentum tonight and carry it into the rest of these games.”

That was the hope for the Rockets as a whole. Their season cannot be changed. They have the league’s second-worst record, a half-game better than the Pistons. They did not need to be officially eliminated to know they are virtually certain to finish among the bottom three teams. But they said they valued signs of progress and chances left to improve.

“It’s super important, especially just after the game we had (against) Brooklyn,” Green said. “Tonight, everyone in that starting five and bench players competed and did what they needed to. It was a good bounce-back game even though we didn’t get the results we wanted to.”

No Rockets player offered a more extreme bounce-back from the games a week ago to the games since than Smith. No one’s success down the stretch might be more important. Little could offer as clear a reason for hope.

“Just confidence coming back and teammates trusting me and trusting myself, trusting my work. And it showed,” Smith said. “It’s real encouragin­g just to see shots go down, see me make shots they’ve seen me make before. Me playing with the edge and the fire. We came up short but just to fight with a real good team like that and an All-Star (Haliburton) and just competing, it’s real promising.”

 ?? Darron Cummings/Associated Press ?? Jabari Smith Jr.’s game-tying 3-pointer Thursday capped a career night in which he scored 30 points.
Darron Cummings/Associated Press Jabari Smith Jr.’s game-tying 3-pointer Thursday capped a career night in which he scored 30 points.
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