Kirilenko's slump ends - just in time to save Jazz, force Game 7 in Houston
Posted: 10:40 PM- Shot after shot clanked off the rim. Passes flew wild, and were deflected away. Possession by possession, the Jazz clinched up just a little tighter in the deafening fourth-quarter cauldron of Game 6 of their first-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets on Thursday night, seemingly destined to throw away the season.
But then, suddenly, a savior appeared.
Wearing spiky blond hair and a cast on his hand, Andrei Kirilenko swooped in like an angel from heaven, completing his recovery from an emotional breakdown early in the series with back-to-back baskets that lifted the Jazz to a 94-82 victory at EnergySolutions Arena that kept alive their hope of winning their first playoff series in seven years.
"I was definitely 'AK-47' tonight," he said, smiling.
Now, the Jazz must beat the Rockets in a decisive Game 7 in Houston on Saturday night to meet either Dallas or Golden State in the NBA's Western Conference semifinals next week. Otherwise, their season will be over.
But it might have been over already, had Kirilenko not been able to withstand the crushing pressure that so vividly afflicted his teammates as the crowd 19,911 roared for them to hold off Tracy McGrady and the Rockets.
"He fought like crazy," coach Jerry Sloan said.
The Jazz said later that they never felt as if they had lost control of the game, but they had allowed the Rockets to cut an 11-point lead to 77-76 by the time Kirilenko cut hard to the basket with about 4 1/2 minutes left and caught a sharp pass from teammate Deron Williams. They had scored on just one of their last 10 possessions of the third quarter, and recommenced bricking shots and chucking bad passes in the fourth.
But when Kirilenko turned that pass from Williams into a lead-preserving layup, he seemed to elevate the Jazz to a blessed state of grace.
Center Mehmet Okur drew an offensive foul against Houston's Yao Ming on the other end, Kirilenko came back on the next possession with a divine jump shot that belied his best talents - "I've never been a jump shooter," he said - and the Jazz took off on a season-saving run during which they could do no wrong.
"That's the AK I know," Williams said. "That's the AK from last year. He was everywhere - cutting to the basket, posting up. He just got it done. . . . He stepped up in a big way and without him, we wouldn't have been able to win the game tonight."
It was all part of an astounding performance in which Kirilenko once again did a little bit of everything - finishing with 14 points, five rebounds, five blocks, four assists and three steals while his teammates marveled at his best performance since crying at practice between Game 1 and Game 2 as he discussed his frustration at playing a minimal role in the series opener.
"Great job, AK-47!" forward Carlos Boozer hollered as he walked into the locker-room shower after the game.
The Rockets complained afterward about the officiating, but there were plenty of other factors that aided the Jazz's third straight home victory in the series.
For starters, Okur scored a series-high 19 points - his three three-pointers in the third quarter helped build a 65-54 lead, following a second-quarter altercation with Houston's Juwan Howard - and the Jazz held the Rockets to 6-for-21 shooting from long range.
Most of Houston's supporting players could not step up to help Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming the way they had in Game 5, either, with starting forwards Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes combining for just six points while McGrady and Yao needed to shoot 17 of 39 to pile up their 51 points.
"Once again, they put a lot of pressure on us," McGrady said, "and just made everything tough. Nothing really changed. We were careless with the ball. I think we were rushing a little bit too much."
In the end, though, it was all about Kirilenko.
The Rockets had no answer for him, from the moment he opened the game with a dunk and a steal to the time he swatted Yao's shot to preserve a three-point lead to the time he fed Boozer for an easy lay-up during the final surge.
"You get yourself going, and then you just feel you can do everything on the floor," he said. "And then you start being so active, trying to be everywhere."
Everywhere, and also right where the Jazz needed him most.