SALT LAKE CITY — It didn't take long Saturday night for Andrei Kirilenko to make his long-awaited return to the lineup during Game 3 of the Jazz's playoff series against the Lakers.
With 6:54 left in the first quarter, Kirilenko checked into the game to a rousing standing ovation from the EnergySolutions Arena crowd. It was the first time back on the court for him in nearly two months due to a strained left calf muscle that was injured in three separate places. He had missed 23 of Utah's last 25 games, but by the crowd's response, absence only made the heart grow fonder.
"I have a long, long relationship with our fans. We have always been very close," Kirilenko said. "I missed those two months, so I was pretty happy to just be back and start playing again."
The forward from Russia immediately made an impact, grabbing a couple of rebounds and tipping in a shot within the first minute. For good measure, he blocked a Kobe Bryant shot 30 seconds later.
"He is so versatile and can do so many things for us," said guard Ronnie Price of Kirilenko. "He is an important piece of our team and I thought he played pretty well, especially considering how long he had been out."
In all, Kirilenko's contributions of eight points, six rebounds, a block and a steal in 17 minutes weren't enough as the Jazz fell into a 3-0 hole in the series with a 111-110 loss, but he clearly added a boost that had been missing in the first two games in Los Angeles.
"I was trying to bring something that we needed on the floor," added Kirilenko. "I wanted to get those rebounds, add some spark on our team. I thought we played pretty well for the most part, we just got a little unlucky in the end."
While the chance of coming back to claim the series against the defending champions may be slim, Kirilenko's return certainly bolsters any hopes.
"The calf is feeling good. It isn't bothering me, just the result," said Kirilenko. "Of course I wanted to get back on the floor, and even again at the end, but I understand coach (his decision), especially with my history lately. I am just happy to be back and ready to play and help the team."