"The last couple months, I've been asked the question, like, a million times," Andrei Kirilenko said.
But when I apologize for bringing it up, he waves me off. "No, no," he said, "it's probably a topical question then."
Kirilenko is the caffeine that makes the Utah Jazz eager and dangerous, the burst that overcomes what they lack in size and athleticism. He has rediscovered that energy since January when coach Jerry Sloan reinserted him into the starting lineup. Since then, Utah has gone 21-5 to leap within two games of Dallas for the No. 2 seed in the West.
"But," Kirilenko said, "I don't think me playing in the starting lineup or out of the starting lineup is the key issue."
The Jazz routinely have been unable to grasp what drives Kirilenko or how to reach him. At his best -- which he has been recently -- few players are capable of creating more plays at both ends of the floor. But when the inspiration dries up, how do you retrieve it? This, Kirilenko admits, is a mystery he shares with the team.
For starters (sorry!), his job description has changed. Over three years through 2005-06, he averaged 15.8 points following the departures of Karl Malone and John Stockton. "After John and Karl left, I was the main weapon for a couple of years," he said. "But then we had D-Will and Booz, who are really great, and I was kind of in the shadows. So I can't really find a way to help them."
Since Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer arrived, Kirilenko has often been at a loss to realize how he fits in. In 2006-07, his scoring dwindled to 8.7 points and he was seen crying after a playoff defeat. He hadn't averaged more than 11.6 points over the past two seasons, but he refuses to blame his anxieties on Sloan.
"We never had a bad relationship," Kirilenko insisted. "He's a great coach and he's a Hall of Fame coach. It's just in every team you can have a misunderstandings. And we couldn't really understand a couple of years ago what he really wanted. He wants me to be the same aggressive guy, but I can't define the spot like what I'm supposed to do exactly. Like you understand it in the words, but when you start to play the games it's different."
Kirilenko's multiple strengths are his weakness. It would be one thing if Kirilenko were a slumping shooter: He would focus on the technique of his stroke and the team would run plays and set screens for him. If he were merely a rebounder or a defender or a playmaker, then his issues could be set apart and cured like an isolated virus. But Kirilenko is all of those good things. There is no simple treatment for somebody who feels simply awful.
So what fixed the problems?
"It's a combination of things," Sloan said.
Now 29, the 6-9 Kirilenko said he gained 20 pounds in muscle for this season. The difference is obvious in his upper body.
"He had the best summer offseason he's had to date since he's been with us," player development coach MarkMcKown said. "He's always struggled putting on weight and muscle mass, but he came back strong. He got hurt and that set him back, but then he fought back -- he kept training, he stayed focused, he's been consistent. All of a sudden the guy is knocking the ball loose in traffic. It's nice to see. Blocking a shot at one end and getting out on the break at another, it's cool.
"The guy has a legitimate bad back, and that's frustrating for anybody. But he had homework assignments he needed to be diligent with, and he's done a good job with it. He stayed on top of it. It was exciting. He was a guy with a nagging injury, and he did everything he was supposed to do."
In the 23 games he's started since January (he sat out three games in late February with back spasms), Kirilenko has averaged 14 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists while shooting 56.5 percent from the field. Now that Boozer is healthy again and Kirilenko is surrounded by Utah's diverse wealth of starting talent, the Russian is fitting in nicely at both ends.
And Boozer has noticed that opponents are once again looking over their shoulders in fear of Kirilenko blocking or stripping them from behind. When asked if he has seen the same things, Kirilenko smiled broadly and said, "No." He believes he remained consistently effective defensively; only as a scorer and playmaker did he feel incomplete.
Sloan now wonders if he should have made Kirilenko a starter earlier this season. "He's stronger, his weight is better, he's kept his weight up," Sloan said. "When he was trying to finish around the basket [before this year], he had a tough time. Now he's able to finish more."
Kirilenko made all the difference during a sensational 116-108 comeback win last week at Phoenix that cut short a two-game road losing streak for Utah. He moved without the ball to finish a reverse layup from Williams, he stepped into the passing lanes for steals and breakaway baskets, and three times he was fouled and fell hard while driving inside. Each time he stood himself back up and kept running.
To approach Kirilenko before any game is to wonder what all the fuss is about, as he sits at his locker reading a book as if the locker room were a public library. But as we talk, he throws down gulps of an energy drink and he becomes more agitated, though still polite. By game time, the sedentary Dr. Jekyll has turned into a kind of Mr. Hyde that every opponent both detests and wishes to acquire.
"I've always said there are ups and downs in basketball," Kirilenko said. "You should be very careful on your downs, you should try to minimize that."
But now he is on the up and up, and it doesn't matter if the Jazz understand why or how. All they hope is to maximize him into June.