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Kirilenko keeps smiling, and so do the Jazz

SALT LAKE CITY — Who would have figured that at this point of the season, one of the Jazz's big accomplishments would be to beat Denver with the Nuggets' two best players missing?

Face it, there was some doubt on Saturday.

The Jazz's 116-106 win moved them within two games of the second-best record in the Western Conference. It also helped them avoid getting swept by Denver for the first time in franchise history.

When you're as unpredictable as the Jazz, you take the wins where you can, even when the other guys are limping.

For some reason (two of them being Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups) the Jazz have struggled this year against a team they used to dominate. Throughout most of their history, the Nuggets weren't often a worry. The Jazz would pass them like a long-haul truck on a night run. They lead the all-time series 95-62, including a 65-15 advantage at home.

But lately, the Nuggets have been troublesome. Going into Saturday's game, the Jazz had lost all three matchups this year. That's worrisome enough for them on the surface. But when you consider they lost their Jan. 2 home game with Denver missing both Anthony and Billups, you had to figure something was fishy in Denmark.

And it didn't smell too pleasant in Salt Lake, either.

The Nuggets not only had their number, they had their throats.

Which made it all the more worrisome when the Nuggets announced pre-game Saturday that they had scratched both Anthony and Billups again, due to injury.

What if the Jazz were to lose this one, too?

Isn't that like losing a war to Andorra?

Meanwhile, the division race seemed almost academic.

That's not to discount the roll they've been on the last month. With a born-again Andrei Kirilenko in the starting lineup, something changed: They got happy. And nobody is happier than Kirilenko.

When he's playing well, he's smiling like a kid at recess. When he's not, he's hollow-eyed and somber.

"I always said, whatever works," said Kirilenko. "You know, like the last month has been great. Coach put me in the starting lineup and we start winning. You know, if you start winning, don't change anything."

They're not about to.

Lately, he's been the old Kirilenko, playing the best since when he was an All-Star way back in 2004.

"Kirilenko looks like he is playing as well as he has played in three or four years," said Denver coach George Karl.

In 2004, Kirlenko was the face of the new Jazz. But along came Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams, Mehmet Okur and even Paul Millsap, and A.K. was relegated to relative obscurity.

That crying spell he had in the 2007 playoffs in Houston? At that point, he was so confused he couldn't have told you his birthday, much less his role on the team.

But he reclaimed a spot in the starting lineup in mid-January, this year, and — Holy stroganoff! — what a difference it made to his game. He has made 57 of his last 79 shots and the Jazz have won eight straight and 12 of the last 13. Meanwhile, his old freakish box score totals are showing up again, just like on Saturday: 22 points, four rebounds, three assists, five steals, one block.

When he's playing like that, he's a one-man Home Depot, offering a little of everything, from nail guns to refrigerators to snow blowers to table lamps.

He started off Saturday the way he left off, scoring nine points in the first quarter. In the third quarter, he added eight more. Two came as he trailed Deron Williams into the paint and dunked, three more on a double-clutch shot that drew a foul. A few seconds later, he stole the ball and whipped a wraparound pass to Carlos Boozer for a layup.

Kirilenko's breakaway slam and a tip in the fourth quarter helped stave off another loss to Denver, which had 40 percent of its starting lineup missing.

Still, for the Jazz, it remains a tenuous situation. Going into Saturday's game, they were just three games back of Denver and the No. 2 record in the Western Conference. At the same time, they were only three from being out of playoff contention.

For all their winning of late, they're still in the Western Conference, where almost every team lies in wait.

Lucky for them, Kirilenko has been waiting for his chance, too.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com