The crowd at Madison Square Garden started to cheer the moment J.R. Smith pulled off his warm-ups and headed to the scorer's table midway through the first quarter yesterday.
The Knicks were losing 14-2.
The cheers became a full-throated ovation when Smith entered the game at the 7:08 mark. The Garden faithful welcomed back Smith for his first action of the season after he finished serving a five-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
Unfortunately for the Knicks, Smith was rusty, shooting 1-for-9 and scoring five points -- all in the second half -- in a 120-89 loss to the Spurs.
"You kind of expected that a little bit," coach Mike Woodson said. "Young man hasn't played . . . He struggled a little bit. But the struggles came before J.R. got in the game."
Smith missed his first six shots before hitting a three-pointer with 9:26 left in the third quarter.
"I wasn't rusty at all," Smith said. "I missed a lot of shots. I didn't get to the basket like I wanted to. Overall, didn't have a good game."
Last year's Sixth Man of the Year took his first shot of the season with 5:55 left in the first quarter. After spinning in the lane, Smith tried a finger roll. It was an air ball.
Among Smith's other early lowlights were an alley-oop pass attempt that was broken up mid-oop by Manu Ginóbili, a step-back jumper that hit the side of the rim, and getting stripped by Jeff Ayres for a turnover on the Knicks' final possession of the quarter.
Smith had his head down when he returned to the bench at 9:23 of the second quarter with no points and the Knicks trailing 42-19. There were no cheers this time.
"It felt great getting out there," he said. "Great introduction from the crowd, so it felt well going in. It would have been better if we had won, but things happen."
Smith returned with 3:39 left in the half and the Knicks down by 19. He picked up an immediate assist with a drive and dish to Andrea Bargnani, who hit a jumper.
Smith finished the first half scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting with three assists, one rebound and three turnovers.
He missed his first attempt of the second half before scoring his first points of the season on a three-pointer that made the score 73-50. Smith's reaction to finally making a shot fell somewhere between relieved and bemused at all that had happened to that point.
And one final lowlight: a cross-court pass Smith threw late in the third quarter. To Woodson. Who was not pleased to have the ball.
Smith, who did not play in the fourth quarter, finished with four turnovers in 20:33. He appeared in only one preseason game after offseason knee surgery. But he refused to cite that as an excuse.
"It kind of had a lid on the rim today," he said.