Utah Jazz: Kirilenko returns to form

Published: Saturday, Jan. 23 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah Jazz player Andrei Kirilenko poses for a portrait.

August Miller, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — From a decidedly lucrative contract extension to tears of frustration shed one dismal day during the playoffs a few years back at Houston, from an NBA All-Star Game appearance in 2004 to his roller-coaster relationship with coach Jerry Sloan, Andrei Kirilenko knows highs and lows.

Lately, though, things are looking mostly up for the 28-year-old small forward.

He's reclaimed his starting spot, at least for Utah's last five games — a stretch, by the way, in which the 24-18 Jazz have won four.

He's averaging 28.8 minutes per game, up 11/2 from a season ago, heading into tonight's meeting at EnergySolutions Arena with NBA cellar-dweller New Jersey.

And he's coming off a victory Wednesday at San Antonio with an individual performance — one block, two steals, eight rebounds, 11-for-15 field shooting and a season-high 26 points — so strong that teammates trumpeted his true value to the Jazz.

"When he plays like that," power forward Carlos Boozer said, "we're virtually unbeatable."

"We need Andrei," added Sloan, whose affinity for the affable Russian over the years — Kirilenko is in his ninth NBA season, all with the Jazz — seems almost at odds with how demands and expectations perhaps have wreaked havoc on an arguably fragile psyche. "We need Andrei's ability, because he can pass the ball, he's long, and if he's moving and cutting and shooting the basketball — we need him."

His relative youth a distant memory, Kirilenko does not for a moment pretend to think he's capable of contributions like Wednesday's on a night-in, night-out basis.

"Almost every game," he said, "somebody can really get hot and start making shots."

Just not always him.

One evening, he suggested, it could be C.J. Miles. Another, Paul Millsap. Or perhaps Kyle Korver, he said.

Wednesday just happened to be his night, aided by a message from part-time shooting coach Jeff Hornacek following a 2-for-7 shooting effort during a Sunday loss at Denver.

Hornacek's text hinted Kirilenko should try to shoot more in rhythm, and not with hesitation.

The result was a game against the Spurs in which Kirilenko said he would "shoot it, make it, shoot it, make it, then you feel hot ... like if you're shooting in rhythm, it's always going to go in."

Point guard Deron Williams started running plays to his side. Sloan called a couple plays for him, too, including one out of Kirilenko's preferred power forward spot. And Boozer, even on a night he scored a game-high 31, deferred to and fed him.

By the time all was said and done, Sloan was discussing just how much better the Jazz could be if a third scorer could contribute on a much more consistent basis.

And he wasn't referencing Miles, Millsap, Korver or even starting center Mehmet Okur.

He was talking about Kirilenko, whose average of 11.3 points per game this season is reflective of how he's scored the past two seasons but off by about five from his third, fourth and fifth NBA seasons.

"In this league ... you have three guys that can score ... you're pretty good," the Jazz coach said.

"Our team has pretty much always been that way, even when John (Stockton) and Karl (Malone) were here," Sloan added. "Before we got (shooting guard) Hornacek, whoever played in the 3 position (small forward), if they gave us a good game, usually we could win. It takes more than just a couple guys."

All of which presents pause for Kirilenko to contemplate the future, something he readily admits he and wife Masha — parents of three children, one recently adopted from their homeland — have done a lot of lately.

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