Back in the building where the former Jazzman made his long-ago NBA debut, Minnesota’s new forward received only a ripple of recognition when he trotted onto the EnergySolutions Arena floor Wednesday night.
Then again, that probably was sufficient for Lou Amundson, having appeared in only one game for the Jazz for a total of two minutes.
As for Andrei Kirilenko, the partial standing ovation that ensued when he was the first Timberwolves player introduced was less than he deserved after 10 seasons in Utah. Yet he seemed to enjoy his homecoming, other than being on the wrong end of a 106-84 blowout.
“Very nice to play against this crowd; they’ve been very friendly,” Kirilenko said after posting 12 points and seven rebounds in three quarters, before the Minnesota starters were deemed to have finished an inadequate night’s work.
So ended a day that began when Kirilenko claimed he was surprised to discover the location of the visitors’ locker room — which seems unlikely, considering he walked right past it on his way in and out of the building for upwards of 350 games, plus shootarounds.
Kirilenko spoke of “tons of great moments here,” but Wednesday’s game would not make that list. His return coincided with Minnesota’s worst effort of the season. How much the Jazz actually had to do with that performance is difficult to gauge, but the home team clearly needed something like this in the wake of three straight defeats and the discouraging news about point guard Mo Williams’ thumb injury.
Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin, a former assistant who took over the team during Kirilenko’s final season of 2010-11, described him as “the same, old A.K.,” intended as a compliment.
Of course, that label became derisive by the end of Kirilenko’s Utah tenure, thanks mostly to his astronomical salary. In his last two seasons, while being paid a total of $34.2 million, Kirilenko averaged 11.8 points and 4.8 rebounds — decent numbers, just not worthy of a max contract that crippled the franchise in such a way that forward Paul Millsap is the only remaining player from three years ago.
After Kirilenko spent the lockout-shortened season playing professionally in his native Russia, he signed with the Timberwolves, who are getting a reasonable return for their $10 million. Minnesota (14-14) reminds Kirilenko of the 2003-04 Jazz, the team that went 42-40 and barely missed the playoffs with an Opening Night lineup of A.K., Matt Harpring, Greg Ostertag, DeShawn Stevenson and Carlos Arroyo.
“Very young, ambitious and really grinding, fighting for that spot in the playoffs,” Kirilenko said of his new team.
Except the Timberwolves hardly looked that way Wednesday. As was his custom with the Jazz, Kirilenko was showered and dressed within 10 minutes of the final buzzer. Only this time, he didn’t head immediately to the team bus. He walked down the hallway to the Jazz’s family room and lingered in the arena where he “grew up as a player.”
That should be remembered about Kirilenko. In those 10 seasons, he became one of the top dozen players in franchise history — even if he never truly fulfilled expectations, partly based on his pay grade, and won’t have his jersey retired.
No. 47 looked kind of weird in a blue Minnesota uniform Wednesday, when Kirilenko showed glimpses of the A.K. of old by blocking shots from Gordon Hayward and DeMarre Carroll on consecutive possessions in the first quarter.
But it all crumbled for the Timberwolves after that, and Kirilenko’s night would end early. The unintended consequence: more minutes for Amundson, who scored a season-high eight points.