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Block party: Kirilenko swats shots as Jazz run past L.A.

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 12:41 a.m. MDT

Andrei Kirilenko stuffs Kobe Bryant of the Lakers as the Utah Jazz open their NBA season Wednesday. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News) Andrei Kirilenko stuffs Kobe Bryant of the Lakers as the Utah Jazz open their NBA season Wednesday. (Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News)
Their starting point guard sat injured behind the bench, dressed in a nifty sport coat. Their backup point guard was nowhere to be seen, recovering instead from arthroscopic knee surgery.
They wish they didn't have to wait, but they must.
Their 2004-05 NBA regular-season opener against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night at the sold-out Delta Center started 19 minutes later than it was supposed to, delayed in large part because a basket was bent out of shape.
They didn't want to wait, but they had no choice.
Once they got going, though, the Jazz played like a team that just couldn't wait, rolling past the Los Angeles Lakers 104-78.
The win marked not only the Jazz debut of Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and rookies Kirk Snyder and Kris Humphries, but also a return to Utah for former John Stockton backup Howard Eisley, who was signed earlier Wednesday for much-needed relief at the point.
Even with usual starter Carlos Arroyo nursing a sprained ankle and usual backup point Raul Lopez resting his surgically repaired knee, though, it wasn't Eisley who started.
Rather, it was former free agent Keith McLeod, who, as expected, took the floor for Jazz coach Jerry Sloan along with Gordan Giricek at shooting guard, Andrei Kirilenko at small forward, Boozer at power forward and Jarron Collins at center.
Beyond the fireworks that filled the Delta Center with a pre-game puff of smoke, it was All-Star Kirilenko - five days removed from a six-year, $86 million contract extension - who provided the biggest early spark.
On the very first possession for the Lakers, who opened their season with a Staples Center win over Denver on Tuesday, Kirilenko rejected fellow All-Star Kobe Bryant's running jumper. On the other end, he slammed home the rebound of Giricek's missed 20-footer. Thirty-nine seconds later, he blocked Lamar Odom's layup. And less than a minute after that, he swatted away a shot from Chris Mihm, who, for the record, is no Shaquille O'Neal.
Before the first half was done, Kirilenko would merely block five shots in all, rebound four and score nine points on 3-of-4 shooting from the field.
But he wasn't alone in helping the Jazz to a 45-28 lead at the break, an advantage that at one point late in the second quarter stood at 20.
Kirilenko, who finished with 16 points and eight blocks, got help from Boozer, who had 14 of his team-high 27 points at halftime; from reserve center Curtis Borchardt, who blocked another three shots in his first nine minutes; from McLeod, who dished five first-half assists; from Eisley, who did not look particularly out of place considering he signed just a few hours prior to opening tip; and from Raja Bell and Matt Harpring, who both came off the bench and combined to score 33 points, including 23 by Harpring.
The Lakers did rally a bit in the second half, making it 69-54 Jazz heading into the fourth on the strength of 17 third-quarter points by Bryant, who wound up with a game-high 38 points.
In the fourth, L.A. even got to as close as 13 points at 77-64 with just more than six minutes remaining.
Ultimately, though, Utah had no real trouble holding on - outscoring the Lakers 35-24 in the final quarter.
"We won the game because our defense was good," Sloan said. "It's a good start."
Not everything was playbook-perfect - the Jazz took way more outside shots than Sloan would have liked - but it really wasn't bad at all for a team whose coach had more than a few unanswered questions, and not particularly high expectations, before his 17th season in Utah got under way.
"We've got younger guys," said Sloan, tenured longer with the same team than any other coach in the NBA. "I don't know them as well. It takes a while to know who they are, and what they can do, and where they like the basketball, and where they like to shoot from.
"The tough part about it is we're expecting them to do some things that we think they should be able to do, but we have to also be understanding," he added. "We've got a lot of different faces, some guys that are not quite sure how they're going to play, where they're going to play, what they're doing."
Add those realities to the fact Sloan already has realized one of his worst fears - "You get somebody hurt, and now problems really set in," he said even before Arroyo was injured in the Jazz's final game of the preseason - and it is no wonder the Jazz coach was not willing to say if he thought Utah could improve on its 42-win effort of a season ago.
"There is no guarantee, (just) because we have new faces on this team, that this team is supposed to jump out and win us 50 games," Sloan said. "I mean, you've got to come and work. We are not good enough to win 30 games if we don't work hard. Or 20 games. That will be a proven fact."
So, too, is this: For one night, at the very least, the Jazz can say their season was well worth the wait.


E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com

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