Michael Brandy, Deseret News
It was nearly two years ago that Andrei Kirilenko sat in a chair at the Toyota Center in Houston — and wept.
He had maxed out his emotions, and even his status as a one-time NBA All-Star wasn't going to stem the tide of tears.
The forward from Russia had been benched for the final quarter-and-a-half of an opening-round Western Conference playoff game against the Houston Rockets — the Jazz's first in four years, and first since John Stockton retired and Karl Malone had left for the Los Angeles Lakers — and he simply couldn't handle any more.
Ever since, and even as the Jazz prepare this week to open a first-round series with the Lakers on Sunday in L.A., Kirilenko appears to be a changed man.
He seems — as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr requested in his version of a rather popular prayer — to possess the serenity to accept the things he cannot change, the courage to change those he can and the wisdom to know the difference.
He's evidently come to terms, too, with his lot in life with the Jazz: a former scoring leader reduced to role player; an ex-starter now coming off the bench; the team's highest-salaried employee, but, at 27.3, No. 6 behind five others in minutes per game.
"I'm sure it's something that's probably been hard for him, because guys have progressed on the team as far as me (and) Carlos (Boozer, the Jazz's two-time All-Star power forward) since he's been here," point guard and 2008-09 team scoring leader Deron Williams said. "You know, he went from being the guy everybody depended on to score 15, 20 points a game to now 11, 12.
"That has to be tough on some people. But I thought he's done a good job of adjusting. He hasn't complained, or made any scenes."
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The meltdown in Houston was quite dramatic. And it is yesterday's news.
But it serves, too, as backdrop for evolution of a relationship in which player plays and coach coaches — and both accept each other's realities.
"I've always tried, after last year and the year before," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said, "(to remember) he's got to be who he is, and I can't change that."
So Kirilenko reads his paperback books, often spy novels written in Russian, while waiting for a game to get under way, and Sloan no longer complains about it.
Teammates still are spilling off the floor following a morning shootaround on the road, Kirilenko patiently waits in a chair for the bus ride back to the team hotel, and Sloan's OK with it.
Most teammates don't even have their uniforms off after a recent 29-point loss in Dallas, and Kirilenko already has showered and dressed and prepared a plate of postgame food to eat while again waiting for the bus, and the Jazz coach doesn't seem bothered a bit.
"I don't have a problem with that," Sloan said.
Nor does Williams, the Jazz's team leader.
He actually laughs about Kirilenko's speed exiting the locker room, be it at home or away, and paints a picture of Clark Kent doing the quick change — only with the outfit coming off.
"He showers faster than anybody on this earth, probably," Williams said. "It's like Superman — he's, like, in the booth.
"He's been doing it since we've been here, so, we just know it's A.K.
"I don't think anybody thinks anything of it," he added. "We often talk about it, though — just how fast he gets out of there."
As for Kirilenko's paperback penchant, these days no one really seems to having issues with that, either.
"Everybody has their own ritual," Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor said.
"People get ready for the games different ways," Williams added. "A.K. sits there and reads a book. I don't read books. I listen to music. If that's how he gets ready, that's how he gets ready. You can't knock somebody's pre-game routine.
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Kirilenko doesn't understand the fuss, and most certainly does not buy the portrait of a disinterested and detached teammate.
"Nothing wrong at all," he said.
"If you take a look, I've been the first guy (out) for seven years. My thing is I don't like to sit after the game in the locker room and wait. Wait for what? I like to dress up, and just get to the bus and kind of analyze what we've done differently.
"I've done it my whole career," Kirilenko added. "I've been doing it with Russian National Team every year. It's not that there's something wrong with it. Maybe somebody looks at it differently, but what I can do about it?" And it's true.
It really is nothing new.
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Still, after a regular season that the saw the Jazz stumble to an 8th-seed-in-the-West finish, some outsiders wonder if there's more to it than old habits.
But the Jazz insist Kirilenko is not the root of their woes.
Sloan makes that clear but does concede the notion of a so-called "Old Andrei" — the one constantly sprawled on the floor chasing loose balls, or sliding from the off-side to block shot after shot — vs. today's businesslike 28-year-old.
"When you're in this league for four or five years, it's a job," he said. "And every player has to adjust to that.
"You know, you're at the front for two or three years, and everything goes well. People love you. Then the expectations get to where we're supposed to be winning it all, and that's what we're faced with a little bit."
Then there's the matter of money.
At slightly more than $15 million per year, Kirilenko makes about $3.5 million more than next-closest teammate Boozer. He's due $16.45 million next season and $17.82 million in 2010-11. At the time he signed his current $86 million contract extension in 2004, it was a max-money deal.
That, Sloan suggested, goes a long way toward explaining why expectations are so hard to realize — and magnifies each quick dash out of the locker room.
"Sometimes money gets in the way of other people's thoughts about players," the Jazz coach said.
"It's kind of like when we had (center Greg) Ostertag," he added. "Ostertag got a big contract, and they expected him to play like (Kareem Abdul-) Jabbar. Well, he wasn't. And that happens with a lot of people sometimes."
Playing arguably out of position doesn't help matters, either.
"The other thing for him is he's, at times, a much better 4 (power forward) than he is 3 (small forward). And we're playing him at 3," Sloan said. "We've got 4 guys we can play.
"We've got (backup power forward) Paul (Millsap), and Boozer, and we can play (veteran forward) Matt (Harpring) some there. He (Kirilenko) played a lot (at 4) when Boozer was (injured). Are we gonna sit those guys down (now)?"
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He'll likely continue to come off the bench.
But when the Jazz open the best-of-seven series Sunday in L.A., Sloan won't just use Kirilenko. He will need him, if Utah is to have any hope of advancing from the first round for a third straight season.
"Andrei's gonna have to play Kobe (Bryant)," Sloan said. "If I have Andrei on the floor with (starting shooting guard) Ronnie Brewer, then who's going to substitute to give those guys a little break on Kobe?
"That's the bottom line. I've got to have somebody to try to play against (Bryant) when I take somebody out of the game."
Opportunity is all Kirilenko wants.
"I don't really care how you start the game, or you're coming off the bench," he said.
"It's not really an issue, as long as you're playing time on the floor."
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Despite missing 13 games due to an ankle that needed in-season surgery, Kirilenko's point production is up a pinch from last season and 3.3 more than during his problematic 2006-07 season.
But from scoring to rebounding to assists to steals and blocks, not to mention minutes, the do-it-all's numbers all are down a bit from his career stats over seven years, all with the Jazz, coming into the season.
Still, when he does play Kirilenko, Sloan suggests he does so with complete confidence.
"He's had some ups and downs, like every player's had some ups and downs," Sloan said.
But, he hastened to add, "I never felt like he wasn't trying to compete in a game. ... I never felt like he wasn't trying out there on the floor."
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Ever since the Houston experience, Kirilenko said he's tried "to separate from thinking too much."
But the passion, he insists, still is there.
A glance at his badly bruised knees makes the case.
"Take one look," he said. "It's still burned. Nothing's changed much."
Williams doesn't doubt it: "He's definitely been different since then, as far as working on his game after practice and working with (part-time shooting coach) Jeff (Hornacek). He's doing great things as far as that's concerned. You could see him taking the game serious."
O'Connor senses it, too.
"The one thing I'd say is I think he's battled back from the Houston series," the Jazz GM said. "This year, especially, coming back from ankle surgery and being able to play three weeks later — I think that's showing he has a desire that he wants to play."
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