Rockets guard James Harden, left, dribbles as Knicks guard Dennis...

Rockets guard James Harden, left, dribbles as Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. falls during the first half on Monday in Houston. Credit: AP/Eric Christian Smith

HOUSTON — With point guards Elfrid Payton and Frank Ntilikina sidelined, Dennis Smith Jr. started for the Knicks against the Rockets on Monday.

Smith had 15 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a career-high seven steals in 29 minutes in the Knicks’ 123-112 loss.

“My mindset was just to be present,” he said. “Whatever was going on, just lock in on that play and try to have an impact on every play of the game.

“They play a really fast-paced game. It’s easy to get trapped in playing like that. That was one of the focal points, trying not to play their game and sticking with what we do. We just didn’t do a good job of sticking with game-plan execution.”

The Knicks not only were without Payton (sore ankle) and Ntilikina (sore groin) but also could not have Kadeem Allen join them for the road trip because he suffered a concussion while playing for the Westchester Knicks on Sunday.  

What were the Knicks expecting from Smith? “I think just coming out and playing within himself, doing what he does,” interim coach Mike Miller said before the game. “He’s very talented. Just going out and playing his game, doing what he does, playing with his athleticism, his energy, engaging the team on both ends. Obviously, the term you’ve heard, the head of the snake defensively, he has to be the guy that sets our defense. We’ve seen him do that. Offensively, get us in our sets, be aggressive, do what he does.”


Quick turnaround

Rockets starters James Harden, Russell Westbrook and P.J. Tucker attended the Kobe Bryant memorial at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday afternoon and then flew back to Houston on a private jet, arriving at the Toyota Center at 5:49 p.m., just over an hour before game time. Westbrook sat out with a sore thumb, but the other two played.

“It’s to pay our respects, show my condolences to the family,’’ said Harden, who had 37 points and nine assists in 34 minutes. “Obviously, it’s a tough time for them, for the entire world. So it was a must that I be there and kind of show my respect.”

Wooten has surgery

Kenny Wooten, whom the Knicks signed to a two-way contract earlier this season, had surgery Monday to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb. He is expected to be out for six weeks.

Miller said the 6-8 Wooten — who averaged 7.6 points and 6.1 rebounds for Westchester — was unlikely to join the Knicks anyway until the G League season is over. “The point we were at, the plan was to make sure he keeps getting the valuable experience he’s had,” he said. “Up to this point, he’s really had a good year of development. He’s really coming on, doing a lot of things. He’s taking advantage of all those minutes he’s getting. Important thing is he continues to grow at that pace.”


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