SAN ANTONIO — Alec Burks has thrived this season in his reserve role for the Utah Jazz as a guy who comes in off the bench and provides a vital spark of frenetic energy and, at times, instant offense.
The third-year shooting guard, who started just three times in Utah's first 37 games, was averaging around a dozen points a contest and was playing virtually the same number of minutes each night as customary starters Richard Jefferson and Marvin Williams.
Then came Monday night, when, with leading scorer Gordon Hayward sidelined with a strained hip, Burks burst into the spotlight with a career-best 34 points in a 118-103 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Burks hit 13 of 19 shots from the field, many of them dazzling drives to the basket with finishes that defied the laws of physics, and he was 8 of 8 from the foul line. He also had five assists in his 37 minutes on the EnergySolutions Arena floor.
"He's just understanding who he is, what makes him good in this league," Utah coach Tyrone Corbin said of Burks, who hadn't started a game since Nov. 18 before taking the injured Hayward's spot in the starting lineup for the last two games. "He's a young guy that's still learning how to play in this league, and he's understanding what makes him good night in and night out — how he can attack on the strong side with the ball in his hands, how he can be effective on the weak side.
"One of the areas we're pushing him to get better at right now is defensively. I think he can be a lock-down defender in this league if he focuses on it a little bit more and continues to work.
"He did a tremendous job (Monday) night of stepping up, especially with Gordon being out and us being short-handed," Corbin said. "And we're looking forward to when we'll have times to go to him. We talked about it and talked about it in the exhibition season; he's one of the guys we want to be able to go to in different circumstances, and (Monday) night was a great indication of what he can do when he's (got it) going."
Utah rookie point guard Trey Burke, who gives announcers a tricky Burke-and-Burks backcourt combo when they're out there together, wasn't surprised to see some of the crowd-pleasing acrobatic plays that Burks came up with in Monday night's win.
"He's really good at getting to the rim. With his body type, he knows how to use angles; he knows how to get to the basket and get to the free-throw line," Burke said of Burks. "More importantly, he's one of the best finishers I've played with. I think he knows his game and he uses that to his advantage.
"... Most of 'em I always see in practice," Burke said of the 6-foot-6 Burks' circus shots in the lane. "He knows how to get that spin on the ball. He knows how to use the glass really good, so sometimes I'm not even surprised."
Somewhat surprisingly, though, is that Burks scored his 34 points without the benefit of making a 3-point shot — he was 0 for 1 from beyond the arc.
But Corbin said that's a credit to Burks' ability to do what he does best.
"He's being who he is. He's able to attack the basket," the Jazz coach said. "Guys get enamored with 3-point shots, but if you can get a shot closer to the basket, it's always better. In the modern-day game, everybody's just so ... the 3-pointer's the sexy thing, but I'd rather you get a shot closer to the basket than a 3-point shot any day."
Burks, who is Utah's fourth-leading scorer at 12.8 points per game, boasts a field goal shooting proficiency of 44 percent, which is better than any of the team's other guards or small forwards who are playing major minutes.
He said long-range shooting isn't necessarily his strength; instead, it's driving to the basket and being able to finish once he gets there.
"I wasn't known to shoot that many 3s," he said. "I just try to attack the rim. That's my game."
And he insists that although he figured he'd be a starter in the NBA, being a sixth man seems to suit him just fine, too.
"It's not frustrating," he said of his customary non-starting role. "That's what the team needs. Whatever coach Ty wants, I do it. ... Just whatever Ty needs. If he needs me to be a spark off the bench, I'll do that and I'll do it to the best of my ability. That's what I've been trying to do.
"But when I came into the league, I did think I was gonna be a starter."
And when asked if he feels like he's ready to start on a nightly basis, the ever-confident Burks didn't back down from the question.
"I feel like I am," he said. "I'm a lot more mature than I was — I was 19 when I came in (to the NBA) — and I feel like I'm a lot better player now so I feel like I am."
Depending on Hayward's health situation, Burks may very well be in the starting lineup again Wednesday night when the Jazz face the Spurs, who at 30-8 boast the best record in the Western Conference, in a nationally televised (ESPN) matchup at the AT&T Center.
It's the opener of a three-games-in-four-nights road trip for Utah (13-26), which has already lost twice this season to San Antonio in Salt Lake City.
"It's a great trip for us," Corbin said. "The Spurs is, if not the best, one of the best teams in the league, and they're playing very well right now. So we're going on their home floor and it's not going to be easy.
"We have to understand that nothing's going to surprise those guys and they're going to be who they are; they're going to play hard on both ends of the floor, and they're going to execute on the offensive end. Defensively, we've got to make sure we understand the rotations and be able to take away some of the stuff that makes them effective, with (Tony) Parker driving or Tim Duncan on the block or the mid-post area.
"So our rotations have to be quick because they space the floor and hit 3-point shots," he said. "It's a team that's very sharp, very experienced, and it's going to be a great challenge for us."
Burke readily agreed, but he appeared eager and ready for the tough test that awaits him and his teammates on their trip to Texas.
"They're a really good team, really well-coached, obviously with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker," he said, "so we're going to have to come out and play from the get-go. Especially being on the road, it's important for us to come out with a lot of intensity and try to set the tone and match their tone.
"The key is coming out with energy. You don't want to fall behind on the road; obviously the crowd's against you, so you basically want to stay in the game and try to go up if you can. You don't want to just come out really stagnant or come out flat as a team, because it can definitely bite you."
Burke looked forward to his matchup with Parker, his Spurs counterpart at point guard.
"He's one of the top guards in the league, and it should be a real challenge," the Jazz rookie said. "I have to be ready to play him for 48 minutes, be ready to stop him in transition, and just try and distract him as much as possible on the defensive end."
But, like an announcer trying to keep that Burke-and-Burks backcourt duo straight, it's easier said than done. Or in the announcer's case, maybe it's easier done than said.
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