Jason Smith liked both getting to start and his start on Wednesday.
The finish — not so much.
Sitting on the bench for the final 96 seconds of the Pelicans’ season-opening 95-90 loss to Indian after fouling out, the center who is the longest-tenured player on the team (four years), could only watch in disappointment as his team let the lead and ultimately the victory slip away.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Smith, who played all but three seconds of the first quarter but only 8:30 after that. “I’ve got to play smarter.”
On the other hand, Smith, who was making his first start since the 2011-12 season after backing up Robin Lopez last year, could look at his efforts, along with those of fellow post players Greg Stiemsma and Arinze Onuaku, against All-Star center Greg Hibbert — six points and four boards in a foul-shortened 21:37 — with a sense of accomplishment.
“I feel good about that,” Smith said. “He (Hibbert’s) a big part of their team and we went out and played pretty good defensively against him.
“I was trying to go out there and play as hard as I could.”
Pelicans coach Monty Williams mentioned the effort against Hibbert — coming off a season in which he averaged 11.9 points and 8.3 rebounds and who had eight points plus 16 boards in Indiana’s opening-game victory against Orlando on Tuesday, as a positive.
“Our bigs did a good job making it tough on Hibbert,” he said. “If you told me that he would score six tonight — qould you take that? — I would be like ‘Yeah, we’ll take that.
“He’s a load down there.”
Hibbert is a load — at 290 pounds he outweighs Smith by 40.
But Smith managed to neutralize his counterpart early on by drawing a pair or offensive fouls in the game’s first two minutes.
Hibbert went to the bench for the rest of the quarter, allowing Smith to do his best offensive work against sub Ian Mahinmy, getting six of his eight points in the period — including an unguarded 20 footer — and setting a number of clean picks for Anthony Davis as the Pelicans built a 24-14 lead.
“That was very satisfying,” Smith said. “Hibbert is very good at defending the rim, but we just continued to attack him.
“We stayed after him all night.”
Hibbert never found his offensive rhythm.
But he managed to avoid fouling out while he was responsible for Smith’s final exit.
With 1:36 left and the Pelicans leading 85-81, Smith left Hibbert to challenge Paul George 10 feet from the basket.
But George fed to Hibbert and when Smith came back for the block, he was too late, getting called for his sixth foul in the process.
Hibbert made the free throw to cut the Pelicans’ lead to 1.
The next time down court, Lance Thomas, who replaced Smith at that juncture, fouled David West.
West made both shots and the visitors had the lead for good.
“Those are the things you’ve got to learn from,” Smith said. “I’ll go back and look at the film and try to get better from this opportunity.”
Smith had earned the starting job ahead of Stiemsma, a third-year player who played at Minnesota last season and Boston the year before that, after a close battle in training camp.
Williams didn’t announce that Smith was starting until Wednesday.
”That felt great,” Smith said. “Any one of our bigs can start.
“Greg is does so much down low defensively and Ryan Anderson (out for one to three weeks with a broken toe) is a great offensive threat.
“We’re coming together as a team. But when you go against a veteran group like we did tonight, you can’t have lulls and we did.”