LONDON -- No one with a non-Russian accent could have been cheering more loudly for Andrei Kirilenko than David Kahn, the GM of the Minnesota Timberwolves who recently signed the Russian forward to a two-year, $20 million contract. Kirilenko opened the Olympic basketball tournament Sunday with 35 points to lead Russia to a 95-75 win over Great Britain.
The 31-year-old Kirilenko had developed a history of injuries during his 10-year NBA career with the Utah Jazz, but now he looked renewed. "I feel great,'' he said. "I'm running like a young deer.''
Not only did he convert 14 of 17 field goals while pushing the pace, he also blocked three shots like the explosively young Kirilenko who earned a place in the 2004 All-Star Game while making three straight All-Defensive teams. He believes his year with CSKA Moscow renewed him physically. "I would say so,'' said 6-9 Kirilenko. "We had a pretty good schedule -- we only play twice a week. But I feel I'm ready to play because we had a lot of practices.'' Though he also admitted with a laugh, "I would rather play games than practices.''
The onset of the lockout convinced Kirilenko to move back to CSKA, which was his original club before he joined the Jazz in 2001, two years after they had chosen him with the No. 24 pick in the draft. "I would say because of the lockout I had a unique chance to stay in Moscow, to kind of give back -- play for my friends, play for my family,'' Kirilenko said. "When the lockout was over, I knew the season was going to be a disaster. And everybody said it's a disaster -- a lot of injuries.''
He was referring to the truncated schedule that limited training camp and days of rest amid the 66-game season. His wariness of those consequences helped convince him to spend the remainder of last season in Russia.
"I said, OK, I have a great time right now,'' he said. "I'm going to finish the season (with CSKA) and then I'm going to make my decision to either get back or play in Moscow.''
The opportunity to return to the world's best league drove Kirilenko to the Timberwolves, in the much the same way as it inspired his current and future teammate, Alexey Shved, the 6-6 guard who this summer signed a three-year, $10 million deal with Minnesota. Russia overcame an impassioned 26-point effort by GB's Luol Deng thanks to the partnership of Kirilenko and Shved (16 points and 13 assists), who showed outstanding comeraderie on the floor after teaming together for CSKA last season. Kirilenko promised more of that for partnership for the Wolves. "I said, 'That's how you're going to find me (in Minnesota),'' Kirilenko said. "We got a connection.''
The Russians have size, length and athleticism across the board, as well as the continuity of years together under American coach David Blatt. They'll be contending for a medal here, but the future employer of Kirilenko and Shved will be thinking ahead to next November.
"If I'm the Minnesota Timberwolves,'' said Blatt, "I've got a big fat smile on my face.''
Not everyone was smiling. Ettore Messina, who has been hired to coach CSKA next season, passed through the mixed zone and stopped in front of Kirilenko. "Kirilenko! Kirilenko!'' shouted Messina, who was a consultant for the Lakers last season. When Kirilenko looked up, Messina pointed at him with a big grin and cursed him enthusastically as they both laughed.
"I know Ettore from a long, long time ago,'' said Kirilenko later. "I know he's a great coach, a great guy. But he understands my position right now. I have to get back and play at the highest level.''