Wolves' Andrei Kirilenko: The man with the dragon tattoo

By Zach Harper | NBA writer
Andrei Kirilenko loves tough defensive assignments. (Getty Images)

Ask Minnesota Timberwolves' Andrei Kirilenko about his defensive assignments or his gameplan for defense and his eyes light up while a mischievous smile spreads across his face. The Russian forward with a dragon (?) tattoo on his back has returned to the NBA and is loving his duties as his team's top defender.

“No, it's actually fun to play against the best players in the world,” Kirilenko explained after the Wolves' 97-91 over the Oklahoma City Thunder Thursday night. Kirilenko gave up 18 of Kevin Durant's 33 points in that game and didn't let him make a basket in the final 6:45 of the game.

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Kirilenko's strategy was to make Durant work to get open and the more he had to work, perhaps the more fatigued he'd be toward the end of the game. Durant ended up finishing with a fantastic night against Kirilenko. It was the game after Kirilenko attempted to keep LeBron James in check in a road loss to the Miami Heat. LeBron had 22 points on 8-of-18 shooting and 11 assists in that contest.

Sunday, Kirilenko will have to guard Carmelo Anthony. It's his third straight game guarding one of the top five scorers in the NBA. The game after that, he's sure to spend plenty of time attempting to defend James Harden of the Houston Rockets. In case you were wondering, Harden is currently fourth in the NBA in per game scoring.

“As I said before the game, with those guys like Kevin Durant, LeBron and Kobe, it's almost impossible to cut their scoring abilities,” Kirilenko said after the Thunder game.

Wolves' teammate Brandon Roy, who was in attendance for the home victory over the Thunder Thursday night while he rehabs from knee surgery roughly a month ago, saw Kirilenko's gameplan of making his opponents work in action. “I thought AK did a good job on Durant; he had his points, but you could tell down the stretch that he was tired."

During the 2011 NBA lockout, Andrei Kirilenko was without an NBA home. He was a free agent after a 10-year tenure (that's fun to say) with the Utah Jazz. He was coming off of the worst defensive season of his career. The only team he had called home in the NBA was going through a big change. Jerry Sloan had retired and Deron Williams had been shipped to the Nets at the trade deadline.

Kirilenko didn't wait for the NBA to get its stuff together and begin the 2011-12 season. He signed in Russia with CSKA Moscow. People assumed he'd be back in the NBA, much like former teammate Deron Williams when he signed in Turkey, once the lockout ended. However, Kirilenko decided his time in Russia couldn't be cut short.

"During this month I considered different options, weighting out all pros and cons, and I came to the conclusion that I should finish this season with CSKA," Kirilenko said, according to CSKA's website. "We've developed great team chemistry, the real team in the first part of the season. It would be inappropriate to stop halfway. It would be unfair toward my teammates and, more importantly, toward fans. I know how many people count on me."

What Kirilenko seemed to do was recharge his batteries and remember why he was regarded as one of the best defensive players in the NBA for years when he made three straight All-Defensive teams (two second teams and one first).

Kirilenko's time with CSKA Moscow (he won Euroleague MVP for the 2011-12 season) and then helping lead the Russian national team to their first bronze medal in the Olympics since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 seemingly turned around his career and gave him the chance to return to the NBA with a new confidence.

When he signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves for two years and nearly $20 million this offseason, many people wondered how much he had left in the tank at the age of 31 years old. Sure, he had just had a fantastic season in Russia but he was coming back to the NBA where he battled nagging injuries and defensive issues the last time we saw him.

Those defensive issues no longer exist, apparently.

In the 2010-11 season, Kirilenko gave up 0.93 points per possession (302nd in the NBA) and 40.5 percent from the field, according to Synergy Sports. He was terrible defending players in isolation (0.92 PPP) and on spot-up jumpers (1.04 PPP including 40.2 percent from 3-point range). He was slow and didn't have the same bounce in his step.

This season, he's back to being the Kirilenko that frustrated opponents and inflated box scores. The Wolves have been ravaged by injuries all season long, but that hasn't stopped Kirilenko from helping the team get out to their best start since the 2005-06 season when Minnesota started out 13-11.

Defensively, he's been incredible. He's giving up just 0.64 points per possession (10th in the NBA) and 31.9 percent from the field. He's the third best spot-up defender in the league with 0.53 PPP, 21.7 percent from the field, and 18.5 percent from three given up. He's flying around the court when he's not matched up against one of the best scorers in the league, making plays and calling out defensive adjustments.

Through December 18, 82games.com has Kirilenko giving up a PER of just 12.7 against small forwards. He's helped the Wolves go from being the 21st best defense in the NBA last season with a defensive efficiency of 103.6 points per 100 possessions to the seventh best defensive team in the NBA this season with a defensive efficiency of 99.3.

No matter what is being asked of him to do defensively, he does.

Chase J.J. Redick around the perimeter? No problem.

“When (JJ Redick) comes into the game, I have to chase him around,” Kirilenko said after a win over the Orlando Magic on November 7. “He's kind of an energizer, but I'm an energizer too.”

Defend four of the best five scorers in the NBA in the same week?

“All you can do is just make them work for those points.”

Scorers certainly have to work against Andrei Kirilenko to get points these days. That's part of the job and the gameplan that brings a smile to his face.

 
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