Ten games into the Utah Jazz's NBA playoffs run, several of forward Andrei Kirilenko's averages are down a touch from what he had in the regular season.
But Kirilenko is still playing well and has had big impact with bursts like he exhibited in the last two home games both wins for the Jazz over the Los Angeles Lakers to tie up the second-round series at two games each heading into Wednesday's battle at Staples Center and in Game 2 at Los Angeles.
"I think his head's there," said Jazz special assistant coach Jeff Hornacek. "He's feeling pretty good about playing. Usually it's a sign if he's struggling a little if he's not active, but he's been active in the playoffs. He's got a lot of blocks. That's what we want from him is just to be active."
Twice in Sunday's 123-115 win at EnergySolutions Arena, Kirilenko put his stamp on important stretches of the first quarter and the overtime, when the Jazz first pulled ahead with the help of two Kirilenko baskets, three free throws and two blocked shots. In overtime, he added two more blocks plus a reverse layup on which he was fouled and made the free throw to give Utah a five-point lead with 35.5 seconds left.
In Game 3 Friday at ESA, a 104-99 Jazz win, Kirilenko had a layup and a block as Utah started to overcome what was an eight-point Laker lead early in the first quarter, and his back-to-back baskets a tip-in and a driving layup, helped Utah hold a nine-point lead early in the third quarter.
In Game 2 at Los Angeles, he had three baskets, an assist, a steal and a blocked shot in the first 4 1/2 minutes to help keep Utah tied in a game it eventually lost 120-110.
They were his three best-scoring games 12 and 15 points on 5-for-9 and 4-for-4 shooting at home and 14 points on 6-for-13 shooting at Staples since the playoff opener April 19 when he had 21 at Houston. He has had five straight double-figure scoring games.
"He's been aggressive this playoffs offensively, defensively," said Jazz point guard Deron Williams. "Just his energy level is what we're feeding off of right now."
Coach Jerry Sloan said, "I thought Andrei played very well in the game (Sunday). He didn't get a lot of rebounds and stuff, but he did a lot of things well to help us win."
Sunday was Kirilenko's second five-block Sunday game in the series.
Kirilenko said he tries to be valuable at important times. "In the beginning you kind of set up the tone, and especially when you finish the game. I'm very concentrated on starting the game and, like, finish (of) the game. Sometimes when you're down like five, 10 points, you need to spend that energy to get them back.
"I'm trying to be contribute anyhow," he said, adding the contribution might be as subtle as getting out quickly on a fast break and drawing the defense so teammates have a better chance to score.
And of course there's the defense against Bryant, the league's newly crowned MVP. Kirilenko usually starts the game guarding forward Vladimir Radmanovic but takes long turns on Bryant.
Kirilenko fouled out of three straight games, but he stayed on the court Sunday by giving Bryant a bit more distance and not reaching toward him. He said he'll try that again Wednesday. "I will try to play like yesterday (Sunday), kind of step little bit back and force him to shoot the ball through the hand and avoid those layups.
"I think he's way more dangerous when he goes in, create those fouls and trying to finish-and-one rather than just shooting."
Kirilenko also guarded Houston's Tracy McGrady, but staying with Bryant is harder. "It's whole different story. It's different type of guarding, and it's ... it's ... hell," said Kirilenko. "Whole time you're playing against him, you're expecting something. You can't really get close. You can't really give him a space, so it's a game."
Told that Bryant had complimented him after Sunday's game, Kirilenko said, "Well, thank you, but you know I hope I can stay with your game for a few more games so we can win."
The Jazz made it to the 2007 Western Conference Finals with a then-unhappy Kirilenko playing tentatively, so perhaps his wish to win a few more will materialize with him feeling sunnier.
"I think he's having a great playoffs," said the man who replaces him off the bench, Matt Harpring. "I think he's doing as well as you can ask him to do."
Teammates say this season's Kirilenko is more sure of himself. "His confidence is better. He's feeling better about himself," Harpring said. "I think he's a little bit looser. When your confidence is shaken and the pressure starts getting to you, it's hard. You can just tell that he's much more relaxed this year."
Williams agreed, "You can tell he's more upbeat now. It's just confidence, that's the main thing. It's allowing him to do things on the court."
"He seems to be a lot more comfortable playing basketball than he was a year ago," Sloan said.
"He's a lot different," Ronnie Brewer added. "It just seems like he's happier when he plays. It's just like the basketball wasn't fun to him (last year)."He's still a good guy, still same ol' AK, still reading books. It's good to see that he's back on track and that he's happy to play basketball again."
Andrei Kirilenko's numbers
2007-08 stats ... Points ... Rebounds ... Assists ... Blocks
Regular season ... 11.0 ... 4.7 ... 4.0 ... 1.5
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