Kirilenko hopeful for early return
SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Jazz finally got some good news about an injured player.
Well, "good" might be pushing it. But for the shorthanded Jazz, even the slightest bit of optimism was a welcome change as Utah tried to piece together another lineup to face the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs.
Forward Andrei Kirilenko said Wednesday that there was a slight chance he could return from a nagging calf injury in time to join the Jazz if the series goes six or seven games -- a much bigger possibility after Utah's 114-111 win at Denver evened the series 1-1 on Monday night.
"It's probably highly unlikely, but maybe," said Kirilenko, who received a dose of platelet-rich plasma therapy to his strained left calf Monday. The injury caused him to miss 15 of Utah's final 17 games in the regular season and flared up each time Kirilenko thought he was close to returning.
Utah adjusted to life without Kirilenko over the last month, but his absence loomed much larger when center Mehmet Okur tore his left Achilles tendon in the series opener Saturday. That left the Jazz without two starters who were averaging 25.4 points and nearly 12 rebounds combined, and had more playoff experience than any of their teammates.
And leading scorer and rebounder Carlos Boozer has been nursing a strain in his rib cage that caused him to miss the final game of the regular season and left him questionable before the playoffs began.
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That's why Monday's win seemed so improbable. The Jazz sicced rookie Wesley Matthews and C.J. Miles on Nuggets All-Star Carmelo Anthony, and flustered him enough to keep Denver off balance. Anthony scored 32 points in the game, but that was a dramatic improvement for Utah's defense two nights after Anthony scored 42 to lead the Nuggets to a 1-0 series lead.
Utah coach Jerry Sloan had few options to replace Okur and called on seldom-used Kyrylo Fesenko, who started for just the seventh time in his NBA career. In his first playoff start, the 7-foot-1, 300-pound Ukrainian had just four points and two rebounds, but plugged up the lane and gave Utah a little more depth inside.
"I thought he had some moments in the game where he helped us defensively just by the fact that he was wider, bigger and in the right place," Sloan said. "We didn't expect him to get 40 points and 25 rebounds. We just expected him to try to play and do what we try to do."
The Jazz are going to have to rely on Fesenko again when the best-of-seven series resumes Friday night in Utah.
Fesenko was reveling in the unprecedented attention he was getting from reporters before Wednesday's practice as his teammates chuckled and teased him about his moment in the limelight.
"I hope he handles it well," Boozer said. "We'll see on Friday. Don't talk to him too much, guys. He's our secret weapon."
Although the Jazz were still as shorthanded as they were two days earlier, they avoided falling behind 2-0 in the series.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, knew they could have been halfway to a series sweep. Denver rallied from a 14-point third-quarter deficit and led by as much as four with 4½ minutes left Monday before the pesky Jazz were able to reclaim the lead and hold on for the win.
"With the intensity in that third quarter, if we could just do that from the start of the game, we'll be fine," point guard Chauncey Billups said after the Nuggets practiced in Denver. "But so many times this season, we had to get down or have our backs against the wall to come out and start scrapping. You don't live long like that."
Utah hosts the next two games in the series on Friday and Sunday, then heads back to Denver for Game 5 on Wednesday. The Jazz's outlook was obviously lifted by getting out of Denver with a split, but they know the Nuggets can reclaim home-court advantage with just one win.
"Obviously we would love to be up two-nothing right now," Billups said. "We really played a bad game of basketball and still had chance to go into OT. We're going on the road, but that's OK, because if we can play the way we're accustomed to playing, do the things we talk about and execute those things, we can move anywhere."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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