PHOENIX Compliments. Added opportunity. The ball.
Since training camp opened earlier this month and the preseason has gotten into full swing, Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko has had virtually everything he's wanted handed to him.
And so far he's made the most of it all.
So suggested Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, whose newly assigned chore as instructed by franchise owner Larry H. Miller is to make Kirilenko feel all warm and fuzzy.
"I don't know that I've ever seen him as comfortable as he is right now," Sloan, whose Jazz close a three-exhibitions-in-four-nights trip tonight at Phoenix, said after Utah won 92-78 Saturday night in Milwaukee.
Kirilenko, Sloan suggested, is playing much like his old self.
You name it, in other words, and he's doing it.
It's just like the Jazz know the 2004 NBA All-Star to be capable of, based on past experience.
And it's just why they did not deal him like they had the chance to do last summer, when Phoenix was dangling All-Star forward Shawn Marion in a seriously discussed trade package.
"He's trying to pass the ball, rebound the ball, defend, block shots that's pretty much his whole picture," said Sloan, who met with Kirilenko at the start of camp in an attempt to iron out the many wrinkles in their complicated, yet simultaneously simple, relationship. "And that's pretty much what he has on the stat sheet."
The 20th-season Jazz coach certainly appeared genuine with his praise, even if he is under orders from the owner to say as many nice things as negative to the seemingly sensitive Russian.
And the numbers bear out his praise, which one can only suspect comes chiefly because it's as simplistic as this he wants the most out of his most-versatile player.
In Milwaukee, where he played 29 minutes, Kirilenko who made public his desire to be traded shortly before camp opened in early October had six points, six rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals. On Friday at Detroit, he logged 23 minutes and finished with nine boards, five points, two assists, two blocks and a steal. And in the Jazz's preseason opener against Milwaukee last Wednesday, Kirilenko wound up with 10 points, eight rebounds, four blocks, three assists and a steal in 24 minutes.
So he may not be scoring in droves, but he is involved.
And that's all he really wanted when complaining about his seemingly lost role late last season and throughout the past offseason.
Sloan, in fact, seems to be going to great lengths to make Kirilenko a part of things so much so that on Saturday he made sure to add, "We should have found him a couple more times when he was open."
A review of the Jazz's first three exhibitions would show that while he hadn't hoisted more than seven shots in any of the outings, the ball did go through his hands much more often than not.
Post-up opportunities have been created out of what would normally be a power forward's spot on the floor, not a small forward's. Kirilenko has been allowed to initiate plays when point guard Deron Williams is not starting sets. And the MVP of this past summer's European championships has been looked to as a viable option, not just window dressing in an offense that when at full strength also includes two All-Stars from last season in power forward Carlos Boozer and center Mehmet Okur and a likely future All-Star in Williams.
Yet if Kirilenko really is as comfy as Sloan suggests, he wasn't letting on over the weekend.
Rather, the 1999 first-round draft choice took a just-doing-what-I-should approach to how things have been going.
"I'm seven years on the team, and know our plays, and know where to get the right shots from, especially for the guys," he said with a shrug in Milwaukee.
That established, there was some reciprocity to Sloan's kind remarks Saturday.
And that is that Kirilenko hinted he really is making a legitimate effort to do what the coach wants, so much so that employee darn-near sounded like boss when discussing the Jazz offense.
"Sometimes the biggest challenge we have is that we're not really playing sets, and that's when we get (messed) up, and that's when we start losing attention, losing focus," he said. "I think my job, as a veteran, is to more stop the game sometimes and turn it in the right direction.
"Maybe it looks easy," Kirilenko added, "but it (isn't) easy."Nor is figuring out these two, or just how long the bliss will last.
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