Knicks head coach Derek Fisher, right, talks with Knicks guard...

Knicks head coach Derek Fisher, right, talks with Knicks guard J.R. Smith (8), left, during the first quarter of a preseason game, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014, in Hartford, Conn. Credit: AP / Jessica Hill

HARTFORD -- J.R. Smith already is off to a better start than last year. The same can't be said for the Knicks.

Smith isn't coming off knee surgery or bracing for a five-game suspension like last year. He's been working hard to earn Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher's trust, and seems to be doing that.

The former Sixth Man of the Year started in Wednesday night's preseason opener, but the Knicks were throttled, 106-86, by the Celtics at the XL Center in Fisher's coaching debut.

The Knicks played like a team still learning the triangle offense and needing to put in overtime on their defensive work. They committed 28 turnovers, and were picked apart by the starless Celtics, falling behind by 28 points.

"I thought we went out there and started thinking too much instead of just playing," Smith said after scoring seven points. "We have to put a little more trust in our front office people. They set this team around the type of players we are. We have to trust our instincts a little more and just play."

Fisher started Jose Calderon, Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Andrea Bargnani and Samuel Dalembert. Fisher said he would try different lineups as the preseason continues to determine his regular first unit. Amar'e Stoudemire started the second half for Bargnani.

No unit looked good defensively.

"I think overall our effort and energy could be better defensively," Fisher said. "But it's tough when you're struggling offensively."

Fisher said the high turnovers were expected as the Knicks try to learn the system. They still have a few weeks and six more preseason games to get better.

The outcome aside, the Knicks think they're heading in the right direction. If Smith remains healthy and focused it can only help them.

"I'm definitely in a better space mentally," Smith said.

Injuries to Tim Hardaway Jr. and Iman Shumpert played into Smith starting Wednesday night, but Fisher also said the 11th-year pro's "work ethic has been great."

Hardaway Jr. played solid offensively, finishing with 18 points. Shumpert (right hamstring) was held out, but Fisher said he should be available Saturday when the Knicks face Boston again.

Smith had been very up front about wanting to start in the past, but he said he's not worried about this year.

"My thoughts are whatever they need me to do," he said. "This is a culture and a situation . . . they've had much success in it. I trust in them that they'll make the right decision."

Smith, who averaged 14.5 points last season, struggled the first few months following major knee surgery. But that was just part of his woes last year.

He was suspended without pay for violating the league's anti-drug policy, fined $75,000 by the league for directing threatening tweets at Pistons guard Brandon Jennings and untying opponent's sneakers during games, and benched twice.But Smith said he doesn't have to change much to fit into the new culture.

"Not really," Smith said. "Just coming in with a positive mindset and making sure all the guys are in the right state of mind is my job. Hopefully I'm doing it."

Notes & quotes: Jason Smith (personal reasons) was not with the team . . . The Knicks signed former Lakers center D.J. Mbenga to a non-guaranteed deal. The Knicks have 19 players under contract, including six who can play the center position . . . Kevin Whitted, Allan Houston's former college teammate, was hired as the Knicks' D-League coach.

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