LOS ANGELES — Phil Jackson used an interesting description for Andrei Kirilenko the other day.
"Kirilenko's like an enigma to this game, really," the Lakers coach said.
Enigmatic, all right.
Of course, the biggest mystery surrounding the small forward is when he'll return to the court. That very well could be Saturday for Game 3 at EnergySolutions Arena if his third return from a strain on his left calf since mid-March stays on track.
Los Angeles knows the puzzled Jazz would love to have their missing piece back at their disposal again.
And the Lakers can't blame them, either.
They've picked on their shorter and shorthanded opponents to grab a 2-0 series lead in Los Angeles. But the defending NBA champions realize what a healthy and productive Kirilenko could do to help their height-challenged foes' woes.
"He's a guy with a reach and shot-blocking ability that changes games up," Jackson continued. "That will be an effective part of their ... return back to their home court Saturday."
The Lakers have actually gotten off quite easy when it comes to facing the lanky, multi-faceted Russian. Kirilenko missed three of four regular-season matchups between the two teams because of various injuries, and his absence was obviously noticeable in the Lakers' playoff wins at Staples Center.
Kirilenko had a nice statistical line against L.A. in his sole shot at the Lakers this season — 17 points on 8-for-14 shooting, five rebounds, four blocks and two steals.
But his big night did come in a Jazz loss — 96-81 at home just before the All-Star break in February — for what that's worth.
In Utah's 4-1 first-round series setback to the Lakers last year, Kirilenko chipped in 11.0 points per game, 2.8 boards, 2.2 steals and 2.0 assists.
Certainly not eye-popping numbers, but they're a whole lot more than he can give the team from behind the bench in dressy duds.
The Jazz readily admit they'd love to throw Kirilenko on Kobe Bryant to give the Laker star a new challenge than he's getting while being guarded by C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews.
Kobe even gives his potential pestering partner respect, quickly agreeing that there's "no question" the Jazz are better with Kirilenko than without — on both sides of the court.
"He adds a lot of energy to their team," Bryant said. "He's a very versatile defender, he's an excellent passer, so he's all over the place. You have to account for him when he's on the floor."
Laker power forward Lamar Odom also spoke highly of Kirilenko this week.
"He's so versatile — great off-the-ball defender, great on-the-ball defender," Odom said. "Any team at this point misses a key player like Kirilenko."
The Jazz didn't practice Wednesday after traveling back from Los Angeles following Tuesday's late-night 111-103 loss. Things seemed positive for his Game 3 return after he participated in 2-on-2 action in L.A., the first time Kirilenko had done that since he strained his calf for a third time two days before the first round started.
After Tuesday's defeat, Carlos Boozer admitted the team that's also missing 6-11 center Mehmet Okur (Achilles surgery) is excited to get him back.
Like the Lakers, Utah knows what Kirilenko can bring.
"Andrei would help out a lot his length, his size, his skill set ... his playmaking ability," Boozer said. "Obviously his defense, giving Kobe a different look. And it'll be good to mix it up with him. We've got Wesley Matthews going on him, C.J. going on him, we can throw A.K. on him here and there."9 comments on this story
Expectations are a bit tempered, though, considering Kirilenko has missed 23 of the last 25 regular-season and postseason games. He hasn't stepped on the court for live action since March 26.
"I don't expect him to play a lot," Boozer said, "but I think the time that he is in there, he can make a difference for us. ... He's been waiting for it for a while, so I'm sure he'll be ready."
But here's another enigma to mull over: Will Kirilenko's presence be enough to give Utah enough spark to beat the Lakers?