Andrei Kirilenko says he's excited to get the playoffs under way. Point guard Deron Williams admits he loves how his Russian teammate "just fills up stat sheets" and looks for more of the same in the postseason. And Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan also compliments the small forward for his consistent effort this past season, a helpful trend he hopes continues.
In other words, it doesn't look like Kleenex tissues will be necessary at interview sessions this time around.
Kirilenko appears to be on more stable emotional ground heading into the 2008 NBA playoffs which start tonight at 7:30 in Houston compared to a year ago when he showed his frustrations in a teary mini-meltdown between the first two games against the Rockets.
Kirilenko further voiced his dissatisfaction with the Jazz during the offseason to Russian media. Many even wondered if his time in Utah was coming to an abrupt end.
But a solid season, an attitude change and one heck of a group hug later, and his team is now praising him and counting on Kirilenko to provide his unique defensive spark and to chip in offensively just as he did for much of the 2007-08 regular season.
"I think last year he was emotionally involved a little bit and it was difficult for him. ... That's something that's in the past. Hopefully, that's all behind him," Sloan said. "We need Andrei to play. The bottom line is, like always, we need him to play and play well, because we need everybody to play to win."
Williams, who was publicly critical of Kirilenko's work ethic last summer, believes the former All-Star is "more confident" than in 2007. The versatile 6-9 post player's production seems to verify that renewed self-esteem in the NBA.
In 2006-07, Kirilenko was only sixth on the team in scoring at 8.3 points per game (the only time he's averaged single digits). This season, he is averaging 11.0 points, 4.0 assists (up 1.1 per game), 4.7 rebounds (the same) while improving his field-goal shooting accuracy from 47 to 50.6 percent.
And that's not counting the benefit the 27-year-old's active style of play provides the Jazz.
"I think it's been a lot better year for A.K. all around, so I don't see anything like that happening this year," Williams said. "We definitely need A.K. to step up and play great for us, and he's been doing it all season long."
Kirilenko, who asserted that Williams didn't pass him the ball enough during his Russian rants in the summer, said his improved play relates to an improved state of mind.
"My priorities are a little bit changed," he said. "I kind of realized what I need to do to help my teammates, so I'm going to do it."
The key, he said, was learning to take basketball a little less seriously.
"I think the main thing I realized is that basketball is not everything. Right now I really try to concentrate on basketball, but I know it's not the most important thing in the world," he said. "I'm just trying to play basketball, play as hard as possible."
His coaches and teammates have noticed and appreciated his bounceback season for whatever reason it happened.
"I think he's having a good year this year. He's a big part of our team," said Jazz backup forward Matt Harpring. "We expect him to have a good playoff run this year.""He's come and tried to do his job every day. I don't think he's done anything but that," Sloan said. "That's all we look for in any player."