Posted Mar 1 2010 10:31AM
Andrei Kirilenko was searching for the right description, pausing every few words, digging for the proper phrasing.
"You're working hard, you're practicing hard. You forget about ... you know ... let's say ... how you say it?"
It wasn't from lack of English. Kirilenko has been in the United States since leaving Russia for the Jazz in 2001. He does very well with the adopted language.
It was from the moment.
Kirilenko is riding his most impactful role with the Jazz in years. He is back in the starting lineup, they are back as threats for a lengthy playoff run in the West, and anyone connected to the team will say without hesitation that two developments are connected.
So, how do you say it? How to describe the rejuvenation, the recovery ... just the emotions at the opportunity ... to be this much a part of this much success in Utah again?
That's what he settled on, with emphasis.
"The happiness," Kirilenko said. "You kind of step down a little bit and start from the basics again. And I think it pays off."
Five consecutive seasons as a starter gave way to a reserve role in 2008-09, dropping to 27.3 minutes a game, 10 fewer than just three years before. His time was declining, his shooting percentage was plummeting, his contribution was disappearing, playoff humiliations were mixed in and he had a huge contract. This long relationship was not going to end well.
It looked like the same thing early this season. Undrafted rookie Wes Matthews played so well that Ronnie Brewer could be moved from shooting guard to small forward, keeping Kirilenko on the bench while drawing $16.45 million a year. C.J. Miles started at small forward, too.
The chance finally came with the Jazz needing a spark. Kirilenko went in, they went off.
In the 19 games since permanently rejoining the opening lineup, beaten out only by occasional back problems, he is averaging 14.6 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 59.2 percent.
In 27 games with Kirilenko as the starting small forward, mostly in a frontcourt stabilized by the consistent presence of Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur, Utah is 19-8 and has risen to within a game of the Nuggets for the lead in the Northwest Division and No. 2 in the West.
Yes, all of the effort by Kirilenko is paying off.
"I made a mistake by not starting him at the beginning of the year," coach Jerry Sloan said.
"He's been the AK-47 of two or three years ago," Boozer added. "Ever since coach put him in that starting lineup, he realized how important he was to this team and he stepped his game incredibly up. He's a huge reason why we've been on this great span."
Kirilenko heeded the advice of coaches and focused his summer workout routine on getting bigger, going from his 2008-09 listed weight of 210 to as much as 235 this season. He feels stronger.
Plus, he worked on his shot with Jeff Hornacek, the former Jazz perimeter specialist. Suddenly, Kirilenko is at 51.2 percent overall, on pace for a career high. The 12.4 points a game projects as his best output since 2005-06.
Brewer was traded to Memphis for a Draft pick, so the depth on the wing isn't what it once was. Kirilenko's major contribution of the second half just went from welcome to mandatory if Utah's hoped-for playoff run is to become reality. Teammate Deron Williams labels him the X-factor for the Jazz.
In the spring, seeing Kirilenko as the difference between reasonable success and early exit would have made the locker room cringe. Now, the statement is actually accompanied by a confidence ... by a happiness.
"It's tough to kind of explain why and when," Kirilenko said of the change of fortunes. "Right now, I'm in the rotation. I'm playing significant minutes on the floor. It works. That's all I can say."
That's how you say it.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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