SALT LAKE CITY— With Andrei Kirilenko's return from a strained left calf imminent — he's "ready to go," he said Friday, for tonight's Game 3 of Utah's second-round NBA playoff series with the Los Angeles Lakers — Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has pondered all the possibilities the forward's presence presents.
He's even considered benching fill-in starting center Kyrylo Fesenko, then opening the game with backup power forward Paul Millsap next to starting power forward Carlos Boozer and using Kirilenko as Utah's top veteran big off the bench.
"We've thought about that," Sloan said. "But if I get one of those guys (Millsap or Boozer) in foul trouble, I may have to go longer (with Kirilenko) than I want to go — and I go back to where it's kind of square one.
"You know, we're sitting there on pins and needles, knowing the guy's been out for all these games — and then am I gonna push him too long? No. I hope not. He's got a career after today."
Kirilenko hasn't played a full game in nearly two months, and he's missed 23 of Utah's last 25 games overall — 15 in the regular season, all eight in the postseason — since first straining the calf in a March 12 outing at Milwaukee.
That in mind, Sloan said Friday, both Millsap and Kirilenko will come off the bench tonight — and Kirilenko, Utah's usual starter at small forward, may not play any small forward at all.
"These guys that we have are wanting to play as well," he said, apparently referencing wing players C.J. Miles (who has been starting at the 3 spot), Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver. "And he hasn't played in a long time, so you're kind of up against a rope and a wire there, too, you know?"
Where Sloan would be willing to integrate Kirilenko, though, is at the power-forward position behind Boozer and Millsap, and ahead of second-season big Kosta Koufos.
Utah's inside play has been lacking the two first games of the series, and Sloan wants Kirilenko to bring a boost on the boards.
"There's times, like when Paul (Millsap) guarded Pau (Gasol) or Booz (Boozer) gets in foul trouble, I have to go back with one of these younger guys (Koufos or Fesenko, who's been starting at center in place of out-for-the-playoffs Mehmet Okur)," Sloan said. "I can go back with Andrei and play him because he has more experience.
"We talked about it (Thursday) a little bit, and he just said, 'Well, you've got to do what you've got to do' and 'Put me wherever you can.' "
Sloan doesn't think the versatile Russian national-team star can guard Laker center Andrew Bynum well — "Bynum is a lot bigger guy," he said — but he does like Kirilenko against Spaniard Gasol.
"He's had more experience playing Gasol in international basketball," the Jazz coach said.
Kirilenko wouldn't mind that assignment at all.
"We played for a long time together against each other," he said, "and pretty much know what each other can bring to the table — how we can play.
"It doesn't mean you're gonna play well against one another in any particular game. But at least you know what he's gonna do, so I think it can be helpful."
And if it's not Gasol who Kirilenko's on, it could be the Lakers' reserve-role big Lamar Odom.
"I think I'm more comfortable with Odom because he's more, let's say, going outside and not trying to break you down every time," Kirilenko said. "Because Gasol is more of a post-up player."
For all the talk about Gasol and Odom, though, Kirilenko does not rule out another possibility.
He wouldn't be surprised at all, in fact, if he winds up spending some time on star Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant.
"We'll see in the game how it's gonna go," Kirilenko said. "I'm ready. I'm ready. If Kobe gets hot, we're gonna change different defenders, anyway."
Whomever Kirilenko is matched up with, don't expect him to be a savior.
He certainly does not, for multiple reasons.
One is that he doesn't even know how long he'll play.
"I'm pretty much sure it's going to be limited," said Kirilenko, "but how much, I have no idea."
Beyond that, though, he deems it foolish to believe any individual can tip the steady-as-it-goes Laker cart.
"I think it's a little bit wrong perception," Kirilenko said. "You know, you really can't rely on one guy who's been out two months to save the game."
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