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J.R. Smith returns to the fold

J.R. Smith of the Knicks celebrates after hitting

J.R. Smith of the Knicks celebrates after hitting a three point shot against the Sacramento Kings. (Feb. 2, 2013) Credit: Jim McIsaac

GREENBURGH, N.Y. - At a time when the Knicks could use a few reminders of their successful 2012-13 regular season, here comes J.R. Smith.

Smith, the Knicks' second-leading scorer last season, will make his season debut Sunday afternoon against the San Antonio Spurs at Madison Square Garden. He was suspended for the Knicks' first five games this season because he violated the league's drug policy during the summer.

"Can't wait," Smith said Saturday. "Big game."

At 2-3, the Knicks certainly could use the bolt of energy and offensive punch that Smith typically provided off the bench last season. He averaged 18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 33.5 minutes, which earned him the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award.

But whether the Knicks will be getting the same athletic wing player when Smith returns Sunday remains to be seen.

Shortly after signing a new contract with the Knicks during the summer, Smith had surgery to repair the patella tendon and fix a torn meniscus in his left knee. He played in only one preseason game, the Knicks' final one, and he acknowledged Saturday that his knee still is in rehabilitation mode.

"I'm not my normal self," he said. "I'm working on my way back. It's a tough process . . . I have my good days and my bad days. I think the key right now is to make sure I keep getting the proper rehab."

That's one reason why he'll begin Sunday's game on the bench.

For weeks, coach Mike Woodson has considered the idea of starting Smith instead of Iman Shumpert. That still might happen eventually, but the timing is not right in the near future.

With center Tyson Chandler out for at least a month, Woodson went back to a small lineup in Charlotte Friday night, starting Andrea Bargnani at center and putting Carmelo Anthony back at power forward, his position much of last season.

On Saturday, Woodson said he's reluctant to mess with that lineup after the team played its best start-to-finish game of the season in a 101-91 victory over the Bobcats. Woodson also doesn't want to put too much on Smith less than four months removed from his knee surgery.

"He hasn't played basketball in five games, he had one exhibition game at the end, so we just got to make sure mentally he's there," Woodson said. "I can't burn him physically."

Smith, however, is adamant that he doesn't want any restrictions placed on him. He said he told Woodson recently that once he's back on the court, he wants to be treated like any other player.

"If I was going to be restricted on my minutes, then I'd rather sit out, because it feels like I'm shorting the team," Smith said. "I want to come back when I don't have to worry about 10 minutes or 15 minutes. I want to play my normal minutes, treat it like a regular game, see how my knee can stand it and go from there."

Woodson wouldn't commit to using Smith as he did last season, saying he probably won't play more than 30 minutes Sunday.

And that will have to do for Smith, who's admittedly eager to see what the future holds now that he's addressed the knee pain that he said bothered him "off and on" much of last season. His hope is that he'll eventually be even more explosive than he used to be.

"I'm not really sure on timetable when is supposed to be back right," he said. "But when it does, I'll be a hell of a player."

Notes & quotes: Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin, both on minutes restrictions in an effort to keep them healthy, both will play against the Spurs Sunday because of their light workloads Friday night, Woodson said.

New York Sports