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It isn't often that a professional basketball player finds himself playing in the D-League and starting an NBA Playoff game in the same season. Guys from the D-League are usually talented but raw, and when they are called up to the NBA, they usually become deep bench guys, a form of insurance in case of injury to a frontline player.
Not Greg Smith.
After going undrafted out of Fresno State in 2011, Smith found a home playing basketball in Mexico before signing with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the NBA D-League affiliate of the Houston Rockets. After beginning the 2012-2013 season with the Vipers, Smith was quickly called up to the NBA. He appeared in 70 games and became a consistent starter in the Houston lineup by the season's end.
The climax of his journey came in the Playoffs, when Smith found himself starting in one of Houston's first-round games against Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, a series in which Houston, down 3-0, pushed to six games. We spoke with Smith about his journey, OKC's rambunctious crowd and the shoe company he hopes to sign with during the off-season.
STACK: This season, you went from playing in the D-League to starting a playoff game for the Houston Rockets. What was the year like for you?
Greg Smith: The season was wild. It was a productive season. I learned a lot about myself and about the NBA, how to be more responsible. I learned how to play hard all game. I think it showed up in a lot of games. I appreciate what Coach [Kevin McHale] did for me, and how he helped me out and developed me as a player. Even when I got sent down to the D-League, I felt like it helped me realize I won’t be in this league forever, so I have to do what I can now to prove I belong. I just appreciate my teammates. It’s James Harden’s team now, and he helped me out as a player. It was a great year, and I’m so happy I went through it with this team.
STACK: You mention how Coach McHale helped you immensely throughout the season. What was the most valuable thing you learned from him?
Smith: Being accountable for all my actions and everything I do on and off the court. Making sure I'm a professional on and off the court. Being at practice every day, showing up, doing everything I’m supposed to do and never slacking off. He always preached, "Don’t bring it to practice, and then come game time not show up." Practice doesn’t mean nothing if you can’t do it in a game. You’re either going to be a player in this league or you’re going to be a watcher in this league. You’re either going to watch the game or you’re going to hit the court and you’re going to play. So I took his advice and did what I had to do.
STACK: What was it like stepping onto the court in the playoffs for the first time, especially in an environment like Oklahoma City, which STACK named as one of the toughest places to play in the NBA?
Smith: I was nervous and excited at the same time. I wanted to do so well, and go out there and pull for my team and try to get a win for us. It was wild at first. I had to keep my emotions down. It was fun, the crowd was loud. It was a great environment. It was a great experience for me, and next year I’ll be ready for it. They’re a great team. They brought it, but we gave them a fight, gave them a challenge. It was a great series.
STACK: As a guy who was experiencing the playoffs for the first time, does a crowd like Oklahoma City's intimidate you? Or did it just get you even more hyped up to play?
Smith: As a player, it pumps me up. When I see that and when I see a crowd that’s really into it, it makes you get chills through your body because you’re so ready to play. Their crowd was going crazy, but when you hit a couple shots, they get quiet. We were out there to show them we’re one of the best teams in the league and can make shots. It was exciting the whole time we were there.
STACK: Is hitting a big shot to silence the crowd when you're on the road one of the best feelings a player can get?
Smith: Oh yeah, it is. When the crowd’s going crazy, that’s when players are supposed to show up. It’s that fire that makes you perform so well and show the crowd how good and how talented you are and what you bring to the table.
STACK: Your teammate, Patrick Beverly, caught some flack for running into Russell Westbrook's knee while he was trying to call a timeout, effectively knocking Westbrook out for the duration of the playoffs. What was your take on that play?
Smith: Personally, I don’t think he meant to go out there and hurt the guy. It’s a basketball play. I’ve seen guys do it all the time my whole career. I don’t think he went out there to hurt Russell Westbrook or take a cheap shot. He was trying to grab the ball and get the steal. But bad things happen, and I just pray that his recovery is fast.
STACK: Your team got down 3-0 in the series, then came back to win the next two, and came close to forcing a Game 7. When did you feel the momentum start to shift?
Smith: Game four. I believe that guys just said, you know what? This could be our last game. Let’s go out there and leave everything on the table. Nobody should be on this court without energy. This could be our last game and we don’t want to get swept. Even guys that didn’t play, all the coaches, they were out there just fighting, make it a tough game for Kevin Durant, and it showed.
STACK: What do you want to work on most this off-season?
Smith: Increasing my post moves and making them more crisp to get my confidence sky high. You always want to get stronger. I’m going to the gym every day. No days off. I feel like my team can go hard and go far in the playoffs, so I have to make sure I’m ready for next year.
STACK: We saw you rocking the Under Armour Spine Bionic during the playoffs. Is that your shoe of choice?
Smith: Right now my agent is trying to get a contract worked out [with Under Armour]. It’s their signature shoe, and I was trying them on and I feel very comfortable with them. I like the way they feel on my feet. They’re very light, so I’m hoping sometime in these next couple months we can figure out a deal, because I would like to start a partnership with them.
STACK: After this wild ride of a season, what's your favorite memory?
Smith: My favorite memory of the season was the [March 27 game against the Indiana Pacers], because I was playing my big brother Paul George who I’ve known forever. I had a great game. I think I had 15 points or 19 points or something like that (Smith ended up with 18 points and 19 rebounds). I went out there and played hard and it felt like the ball just kept ending up in my hands wherever I was at. It was crazy. I still watch film of that game.