HARTFORD -- J.R. Smith already is off to a better start than last season.

Smith is not coming off knee surgery or bracing for a five-game suspension like last year. He also has 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 the Knicks' preseason opener Wednesday night.

"I'm definitely in a better space mentally," Smith said before scoring seven points in the Knicks 106-86 loss to the Celtics at the XL Center. "I feel better. I'm feeling more healthy. I'm feeling better about the season coming up. So I feel in better spirits."

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

The Knicks played like a team still learning the triangle offense. There were in sync at times, but rarely on defense against the starless Celtics. Fisher's focus during camp has been defense, but the Knicks clearly have plenty more work to do.

Tim Hardaway Jr. and Iman Shumpert have been nursing injuries, so that played into Smith starting. But Fisher also said the 11th-year pro "deserves" the start.

"It's just a combination of everything we've seen so far," Fisher said. "I do think some of it is Tim and Shump not being available each day and not getting a chance to see them at full strength sometimes. And so J.R.'s been consistent in practice, his work ethic has been great. He's picking up the system as well as you possibly can expect a guy the first week or so. We felt it was right to go this way."

Hardaway Jr. (hip inflammation) played a strong offensive game, finishing with 18 points. Shumpert (right hamstring) was held out. Fisher said Shumpert should be available Saturday when the Knicks face the Celtics again, and for the remaining five preseason games.

Smith had been very up front about wanting to be a starter in the past, but he said he's leaving it up to the coaches 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 ex-Lakers center D.J. Mbenga, who won two championships under Jackson and with Fisher, to a non-guaranteed deal. The Knicks have 19 guys 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. Houston is the Westchester Knicks general manager.