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Utah Jazz: Kirilenko returns to form

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 8:58 p.m. MDT

Utah Jazz player Andrei Kirilenko poses for a portrait. (August Miller, Deseret News) 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.

Utah Jazz's Andrei Kirilenko drives as the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets play. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah Jazz's Andrei Kirilenko drives as the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets play. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

"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.

Andrei Kirilenko dunks against the Bucks at the EnergySolutions Arena. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News) Andrei Kirilenko dunks against the Bucks at the EnergySolutions Arena. (Michael Brandy, Deseret News)

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.

Utah's Andrei Kirilenko ducks under the defense of the Thunder's Russell Westbrook as the Jazz and the Thunder play at Energy Solutions. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Utah's Andrei Kirilenko ducks under the defense of the Thunder's Russell Westbrook as the Jazz and the Thunder play at Energy Solutions. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

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.

Kirilenko will turn 29 when the NBA trade deadline passes on Feb. 18.

With a salary of $16,442,000 this season and $17,813,000 next season, he's virtually untradeable this season. His expiring contract, though, could be enticing to some team when next season's deadline for dealing rolls around.

Whatever happens then, Kirilenko says he's started to prioritize his wish list for the summer of 2011.

And No. 1 on it is not, as some suspect, catching the first flight back to Moscow.

"Getting back to Europe is definitely my last choice," he said after a shooting session with Hornacek prior to practice Friday. "Because the level of the basketball is really different than here, and you want to play at the best level as possible as long as you can."

And he definitely wants to continue playing beyond age 30, which seemingly leaves either joining another NBA team or staying in Utah.

Either way, he knows it will have to be at a considerably reduced price.

Some teams are bound to show interest in a cheaper Kirilenko, including perhaps New Jersey.

The Nets' new owner will soon officially be Mikhail Prokhorov, the richest man in Russia and longtime financial backer of Kirilenko's former Russian League club, CSKA Moscow.

"It's tough to say," Kirilenko said of potential Prokhorov pursuit. "I'm pretty sure if I was a Russian owner I would be interested to get a Russian player."

And Kirilenko happens to be the only one currently in the NBA.

"It's really up to him," Kirilenko said. "But priority is Utah Jazz."

That's right: For all the rough days he's had here, for all the heartache, for all the difficulty he's had living up to his contract and fully satisfying Sloan, and for as hard as it may be for some cynics to buy, Kirilenko insists his first preference would be to stay.

"Of course we're thinking about our future," Kirilenko said. "After talking a lot, we think Utah is the best choice for us, because our kids are growing up here, going to school, we've settled everything, we know what to expect.

"But it's so far away," he added, "and it's really early to say."

e-mail: tbuckey@desnews.com

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