SALT LAKE CITY — Jerry Sloan now readily acknowledges, with the benefit of hindsight, that perhaps Andrei Kirilenko hasn't been used properly over the years.
But lately the Jazz's starting small forward has been playing like the NBA All-Star he once was. Playing like when he stars for his homeland on the world stage. Playing like someone living up to, if such a notion actually is possible, his $16.44 million season-long salary.
Why now, and why not previously?
Curious minds want to know just what's behind the recent resurgence of the lanky Russian, which not so coincidentally at all coincides roughly with a stretch in which the Jazz have won eight straight and 12 of their last 13 games.
"Whatever's motivating him — I'm happy about it," Carlos Boozer said.
"You don't care," fellow teammate Deron Williams added when asked how Kirilenko has managed to turn his bulb to the brightest it can be. "Just hopefully it stays on."
The man with the answers, curiously enough, is Kirilenko himself.
Though he's never been one to openly complain about coming off the bench, Kirilenko — who had a team high-tying 22 points and five blocks in Saturday's home win over Northwest Division-leader Denver — makes a compelling case that extended minutes and a return to the Jazz's starting lineup have spurred his terrific turnaround.
"One good reason for this is playing time," he said. "I'm playing, like, almost 35, 40 minutes every game."
Some of that time has come at the expense of veteran swingman Kyle Korver, who hasn't played at all in two of the Jazz's last three games, and the starting has come at C.J. Miles' expenses.
"I'm telling you — I don't have any preferences," added Kirilenko, who indeed has logged 36 minutes or more in four consecutive games and six of Utah's last eight. "But when you come in the starting lineup, you have more time."
Starting, he suggests, allows him ample time to get into a game's flow — and the sooner he does that, the better.
Being kept in games when he's hot and contributing has helped too.
"I always feel for, like, five, six minutes you don't do anything," said Kirilenko, the tourney MVP when Russia won FIBA's 2007 European Championships. "You kind of get going, get going, and finally ... in five minutes, you've got everything. Basketball has always been like this. It's a game of the moment. You catch the moment, you keep riding it."
And it's been one wallop of a wave.
The do-it-all Kirilenko is averaging 15.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.5 blocks while starting Utah's last dozen games — a stretch in which the 31-18 Jazz, idle until visiting the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night, are 11-1.
Those numbers alone — backing Kirilenko's theory about his effectiveness as a starter — are 5.8 more points, nearly twice as many steals and 50 percent more blocks than when he's come off the bench (and, granted, averaged five fewer minutes) this season.
It's been a time period in which even when he plays as many as 40 minutes in a single game, there seems to be no point of negative return.
"He's taken off, and so have we," Boozer said. "He's our X-factor, in my opinion. If he plays well, I think we're unbeatable."
"There's not enough I can say about what he's doing at both ends of the floor — the problems he's causing people, the way he's attacking the basket," the All-Star Williams added. "He's shooting the ball well, he's getting steals at crucial times in the game, he's blocking shots. He's just playing like an All-Star."
Yet numbers also show that when Kirilenko started eight games at the season's start and the Jazz opened 3-5, he was averaging 6.9 more minutes per game than the 31.0 he's averaged during his current 12-game starting stretch — but his points were down by 2.4, and his rebounding, steals and blocks all lagged as well.
So there's got to be more to it than just playing time, right?
Kirilenko agrees, and has a plausible explanation for that assertion too.
"Definitely I think I'm playing better even than the beginning of the season — because we're playing better as a team," he said.
Williams, though, puts the ball in this who's-feeding-whom game squarely back in Kirilenko's court.
"I think it's all him," the Jazz point guard said. "We're a team where if you're open and you're aggressive, you're gonna be able to score. And I think he's just taken that upon himself.
"He sees that we need a third scorer out there (besides Williams and Boozer), and he's taken it upon himself to go out there and do it. And he's doing it in a variety of ways.
"He's done a great job of cutting," Williams added. "I know I go to finish a lot, and I'm about to lay it up, and I see A.K. streaking to the basket and I just dump it off to him, and he's done a great job of just catching it and dunking it. Not trying to draw fouls. He's just going and finishing strong."
Sloan, who thinks Kirilenko's also benefited from playing more at power forward and taking advantage of his quickness against opposing 4s while now-healthy Boozer recently missed three games with a calf injury, sees much of the same.
"Andrei's a hustle player. ... He's been able to block a shot, run the floor, make passes, do those sorts of things," the Jazz coach said of Kirilenko, whose 12.3 season scoring average ranks fourth behind Boozer (19.2), Williams (18.9) and center Mehmet Okur (12.6).
"I don't know how many outside shots he's actually taken with a 15-point average the last few games," Sloan added. "I think most of them have been layups, because he's moved, he's gotten himself open, he's taken the ball to the basket. Those things have become important to him."
They have, and that seems to make Sloan — who openly praises Kirilenko's current consistency — wonder about what might have been had he been used differently over the years.
"His play has been terrific," Sloan said. "There's not any question about that. He's played more like Andrei played his first year or so with us."
But Kirilenko played a lot at power forward during his 2003-04 All-Star season — one, it should be noted, in which he led the team in scoring but it went 42-40 and failed to make the playoffs.
Along came eventual two-time All-Star Boozer in 2004, and with his arrival Kirilenko played much more at small forward.
He still opened regularly during Boozer's first four years in Utah, but last season — with ex-Jazz forward and bench spark plug Matt Harpring limited by injuries — Kirilenko was relegated from starter to sub.
"I thought that would give us a lift," Sloan said. "Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn't."
Now, though, Kirilenko has hoisted the Jazz high into the landscape of NBA Western Conference playoff contenders.
"I'm happy for him," Sloan said. "You know, we bumped heads against each other. But he's still been very professional about doing his job.
"I'm happy for him, because he seems to be happy playing, he seems to be happy with his teammates. And, you know, he's always been an upbeat guy.
"I think there's times," Sloan added without skipping a beat himself, "that probably I didn't play him right somewhere along the line. Maybe his whole career."
SUBBING AND STARTING
Andrei Kirilenko's averages coming off the bench vs. starting this season:
Category. . .Sub. . .Starter
Points. . . 10.1. . . 15.0
Assists. . . 2.7. . . 3.0
Rebounds. . . 4.8. . . 4.8
Steals. . . 1.1. . . 1.6
Blocks. . . 1.0. . . 1.4
Minutes. . . 26.0. . . 33.8
THEN AND NOW
Andrei Kirilenkos averages when he started eight games at the seasons open compared to his current 12-game stint as a starter:
Category. . .Then. . .Now
Points. . . 13.5. . . 15.9
Assists. . . 3.6. . . 2.6
Rebounds. . . 4.6. . . 4.9
Steals. . . 1.0. . . 1.9
Blocks. . . 1.3. . . 1.5
Minutes. . . 37.9. . . 31.0