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Andrei Kirilenko is ‘starting over’ in pending return to Jazz

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SALT LAKE CITY — On the verge of at last running free, Andrei Kirilenko smiled widely.

"Feels like a long time," he said. "Feels like starting over in preseason."

His chance to again put up those freakish box scores is at hand. Yet that's the strange thing about the Jazz forward. Though he has never seemed terribly worried about numbers, they are a lot of his appeal: rebounds, assists, points, steals and blocks in weird combinations.

Some nights he'll have more blocks than points; more steals than rebounds. At game's end, his line reads like a lock combination.

Thus, on Thursday, he waited.

"Yeah, it feel like some of the more emotion, you're so scared to do," he said, his syntax nearly as jumbled as his stats. "But I have those three days, which will be a huge luxury with the playoff schedule. So right now it feels like I'm going in a good program and should be ready for Saturday."

Translation: All systems go.

After a stretch that kept him out of all the postseason and 23 of the Jazz's last 25 games, it would be hard for Kirilenko not to be excited. Some play for fun, but mostly for the money. Kirilenko is the opposite.

"Little things," he was saying. "Steals, blocks, defensive stuff — especially defensive stuff — especially with their three big guys — Pau (Gasol), Lamar (Odom) and (Andrew) Bynum — under the basket, so I think I do a little help on the boards, block out, rebounds, second chances. And defensive, especially, help on Kobe (Bryant)."

Realistically, Kirilenko won't make a huge impact if he does play Saturday against the Lakers in Game 3. It's not like he's in prime shape. He hasn't opened the throttle in two months.

"Conditioning is the thing that I most worry about, but again, I don't think I get 48 minutes on Saturday, so not to worry about it," he said.

That Kirilenko sounds anxious to resume after such a long layoff isn't unusual. When he burst onto the NBA scene in 2001, nobody knew quite what to make of him. He wasn't a shooter but he scored, wasn't a rebounder but he rebounded.

Mostly it was an enthusiastic blur of arms and legs.

An urgency to play has been both his salvation and his downfall. Kirilenko's willingness to play any position in order to stay on the court has worked. He is one of the rare players who can improve his team's chances without taking a single shot. He has thrived, at times, as both a starter and sixth man.

At the same time, it has occasionally pushed against him. For instance, that time during the 2007 playoffs when, confused over his diminishing role, he wept during interviews with the media. He admitted to being confused and unsure in Jerry Sloan's system.

Sloan said he wasn't equipped to deal with that sort of drama.

It was also that anxiousness to play that caused him to strain his calf three times in a month, starting in March. He hasn't played in a full game since March 10.

Some say Kirilenko has received a free pass from the media, while Carlos Boozer has endured widespread criticism for not coming back quickly from injuries. But there are nuances. First, Kirilenko overall has been ready while Boozer had missed one-third of his games in Utah, going into this season.

Second, Kirilenko is far more likely to dive for a loose ball than Boozer.

And third, Kirilenko is happy if he gets four steals, four blocks and three assists for a night, rather than just points or rebounds.

All of those have bought him some good will this spring.

In any case, barring a re-injury in practice today, the Happy Russian should soon be happy at last.

"Again, I do not have the kind of luxury to wait; we're kind of down two games in the second round," said Kirilenko. "It (the leg) feels a lot better than a week ago, so I have to get back and start playing the game."

Which was surely his plan all along.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com