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Jabari Smith Jr. finding multiple ways to impact winning for Rockets

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LAS VEGAS — After Houston lost Thursday’s opener to Orlando, summer league head coach Rick Higgins said he needed to do a better job of getting his rookie Jabari Smith Jr. the ball. In a reciprocating fashion, Smith said he realized that he needed to do a better job of getting to ideal spots on the floor so his teammates could get him the ball.

In Saturday’s 90-88 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, getting shots for Smith was not the problem. It was making them that plagued him for three quarters. Smith started the game going 0-for-4 in the first quarter and did not make any shot until 7:38 remained in the second quarter.

His second made basket came after he blocked Chet Holmgren, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft, and raced up the floor to hit a 3-pointer, only seven seconds later. Smith, the No. 3 pick, finished the half going 2-for-10 and followed that up with a 1-for-6 third quarter.

Yet, Higgins never lost faith in Smith and knew that his confidence in himself would not allow him to stop taking shots.

“He is full of confidence,” Higgins said. “He is full of confidence, and he is supposed to be full because we all have the utmost confidence in him. So, obviously, we wanted him to shoot the ball. We just wanted him to shoot good shots. As long as he is shooting good shots, each and every one of his teammates are going to believe that it is going to go in.”

Although his shots were not falling for the first three quarters, Smith found ways to stay engaged on the court. He played excellent defense on Holmgren and did all the necessary things to make his teammates around him better and keep the Rockets within striking distance of the Thunder.

“My shots weren’t falling, but I feel I can impact the game in different ways,” Smith told reporters postgame. “Like just trying to play defense as hard as I can, try to get every rebound, try to block shots. So, I just tried to impact the game in different ways.”

Then, in the game’s final five minutes, Smith finally made an impact on the offensive end — just when his team needed it the most.

With Houston trailing Oklahoma City 80-76 with under 4:30 left to play in the fourth quarter, Smith knocked down his second 3-pointer of the game to pull the Rockets to within one point. On the next trip, his 16-foot turnaround jump shot gave Houston an 81-80 lead over the Thunder.

Finally, with time winding down and the Rockets clinging to a one-point lead, Smith’s presence was felt on the defensive end of the court. With 12 seconds left, Thunder guard Josh Giddey turned the ball over off the dribble, and Smith dove on the floor to retrieve the loose ball and was able to stay inbounds and call a timeout. Then, in a transition sequence a few seconds later, Smith used his length and lateral quickness to contest Giddey’s unsuccessful attempt at a tying shot as time expired.

Smith’s fourth-quarter plays indicate what type of player he is projected to be in the NBA. Most veterans will allude to having a mentality that helps erase bad nights, and Smith was able to forget the previous three quarters and did what it took to help his team win.

“Just trying to have a short-term memory,” said Smith, who finished the game with 9 rebounds, 4 steals, and 3 blocked shots. “In college, you have to let stuff go quick because you have so many games, and at this level, it’s another level because you have to play five games in eight days maybe. I try not to worry about the past and just move on.”

The Rockets will get one day of rest before taking on one of their in-state rivals, the San Antonio Spurs, on Monday night in Las Vegas..

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Takeaways: In defensive battle, Jabari Smith Jr. rallies Rockets past Chet Holmgren, Thunder