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Utah Jazz just hope to be healthy for playoff push

Published: Monday, April 12 2010 1:35 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Wondering whom they'll play against in the NBA playoffs isn't the only question on the Utah Jazz's minds right now.

They're also trying to figure out who will play for them this week.

And they're much more concerned with getting Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur back than they are worrying about if they'll play the Spurs, the Suns or any of their other six possible first-round foes.

With two key regular season games remaining and the playoffs approaching this weekend, the Jazz had an encouraging development on the injury front Sunday. Okur (left Achilles tendinitis) made it through a full practice, and Kirilenko (strained left calf) participated in about half of the session.

"Hopefully," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said, "they start to feeling better."

Okur said it would be "a great opportunity" if both played in the final two games, so they can get back up to full speed. Kirilenko isn't sure that will happen, but he's eager to get back, work on his conditioning and put his calf woes behind him.

Their improved health will raise another question: What to do with the Jazz lineup?

Okur has only missed one full game (Friday's win at New Orleans) since his Achilles flared up at Houston last Wednesday, and he plans on returning Tuesday night at Golden State. His return to the starting center position isn't in question.

"Feeling better today," Okur said before Sunday's practice and a day after an MRI revealed that his injury is tendinitis, with no torn tissue.

"I'm glad it's not really a big deal, my Achilles," he added. "And hopefully (I'll) play the last two games and be ready to go at playoffs."

The bigger mysteries revolve around Kirilenko — when he'll play again, and whether or not he'll start when he's back.

Kirilenko has missed 13 of the Jazz's past 15 games because of his injured calf. He is slowly but surely progressing and believes he'll play this week — in the regular season and playoffs — though Sloan hinted it's possible he might return to a reserve role.

"I'm definitely feel(ing) way better," Kirilenko said.

He said that during the pre-practice interview session, but the small forward took part in all of the running and shooting drills Sunday while sitting out the full speed five-on-five work, according to a team spokesman. For now, he is listed as doubtful for Tuesday's game. Kirilenko said it might take him between three to five days once he's able to go all-out to get his conditioning back in tip-top shape, and he plans on going "100 percent" when he returns.

Still, it's hard for Kirilenko not to think back and remember that he re-injured the same calf when he came back on two separate occasions last month.

"It is in the back of my mind," he said. "So what I'm trying to do right now is kind of reduce those risks, but you can't avoid it."

It's not on the front of Sloan's mind now — and won't be until Kirilenko receives the green light to play again from the team's medical staff. But Sloan can't avoid questions about whether he'll reinsert Kirilenko back into the starting lineup when he does return.

The coach has been pleased with how fill-in starter C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews have been playing in the starting lineup in his absence.

"It's been so long and these younger guys seem to be playing pretty good to get started. I don't know," Sloan said. "That's a fair question; I just can't answer it directly right now. I don't count on guys until I know they're ready to play."

One thing the Jazz do know, though, is that they want both Okur and Kirilenko to be at full-strength for the playoffs. Their size, Okur's outside shooting and Kirilenko's diversity are some of the obvious keys to their long-term success.

"We need," Sloan said, "all the help we can get. ... We need everybody."

Team captain Deron Williams was happy to see both back on the court Sunday. The team will practice again this morning before leaving for the first of their back-to-back games in Oakland on Tuesday. The Jazz return to Salt Lake City for a season-finale showdown with the Suns on Wednesday.

"We've been waiting for them to get back and healthy," Williams said.

Not having a fully healthy Okur doomed the Jazz from the get-go — or at least was one of the problems — in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009.

"You always want a team at full strength when you get into the playoffs because you need everybody to be successful," Williams said, adding that he hopes Kirilenko doesn't reinjure himself. "We definitely need A.K. to be successful. He brings a dimension to our team that nobody on this team can bring."

e-mail: jody@desnews.com

Race for No. 2

Western Conference playoff seedings

1. L.A. Lakers 56-24

2. Dallas 53-27

3. Denver 52-28

4. Utah 52-28

5. Phoenix 52-28

6. S. Antonio 49-31

7. Portland 49-31

8. Ok. City 49-31

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