National team duty can sometimes feel like a burden for NBA players, cutting into a summer that already seems too short.
For Andrei Kirilenko, it might have rescued his career.
The Utah forward was unhappy and at times unproductive in 2006-07, the worst season of his career. But he never thought about getting away from basketball for a while, not with the European championships taking place in September in Spain.
Kirilenko ended up winning MVP honors after carrying Russia to a stunning championship and an Olympic berth, and says now that the experience ``kind of restored my mind a little bit.''
``It was a tough year last year, a lot of disappointment for me,'' Kirilenko said. ``In your mind you start to talk to yourself a little bit.''
There were none of those negative thoughts following the Russians' upset of host Spain, the reigning world champion, in the title game. Kirilenko scored 17 points in the victory and made huge news in his home country.
``It's really important for the players, especially who have already been successful individually,'' Kirilenko said of the Russians' first European title since the Soviet Union won in 1985. ``You really think about if I'm good enough, I need to win something with the team, so it's kind of in your head. It's really helped me make my career achievement.''
Kirilenko averaged 8.3 points last season, lowest of his career and a seven-point drop from the previous year. He struggled with everything from Jerry Sloan's criticisms to his offensive schemes, but they discussed their differences on the eve of training camp, and the coach says Kirilenko has been ``terrific'' this season.
``He has a lot of different things he does and we haven't done a very good job probably coaching him the last couple of years,'' Sloan said. ``I think with that he's done a better job this year, and we've tried to do a better job coaching him. He's put in a lot of work.''
That's evident on the court, where his stats were all up from last season as he headed into the weekend. And it's obvious in his mind-set. After telling a Russian newspaper of his unhappiness and expressing a desire to leave Utah over the summer, Kirilenko says he no longer lets basketball be his No. 1 priority, and seems more at peace as he refuses to discuss what went on last season.
``Right now I'm changed completely. I feel way different,'' he said. ``I don't want to get back to it, there's a lot of controversy, there's a lot of things which is media created.
``Right now we're playing pretty good. I'm trying to do my best ... so let's keep doing it.''
That would be the best thing for Utah's Western Conference title hopes. But Sloan knows better than to guarantee it will happen.
``I don't know what tomorrow brings with anybody,'' he said. ``I don't mean that in a negative way, that's just the way life is. You don't know that about this business then you're going to be shocked when something happens. And I haven't been shocked too many times.''
CONFLICTED COACH: The latest slow start for the Chicago Bulls has Scott Skiles feeling a bit conflicted.
Should the coach not be bothered, realizing his team has done this before and found a way out of it? Or should he be mad at his players, because they ought to know better by now?
``I'm not angry, but I think a little bit of both,'' Skiles said. ``I think it's a two-way street there.
``Our guys can feel confident that we have come out of it before. The other side of that is you could be complacent about it, too, and say, 'Well, we'll come out of it,' and then you don't have the intensity. I don't sense that that's where we are.''
Chicago overcame an 0-9 start to reach the postseason in 2004-05, and the Bulls found their way back to the playoffs last season after opening 3-9, so a rough early stretch is nothing new. In fact, the Bulls' pregame notes proudly detail some previous escapes from 0-3 starts, which this team will also need.
The first month of the season was a lousy one for the Bulls. Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, their two best players, were distracted after they were unable to work out new contract extensions by the Oct. 31 deadline, and both heard their names mentioned in the Kobe Bryant trade rumors.
Chicago managed only one victory on a dreadful six-game road trip, but returned home to beat Atlanta 90-78 Tuesday night. That started a stretch in which the Bulls play seven of 10 games at the United Center, giving them a chance to get well quickly.
And Skiles believes that is what will happen.
``I think from talking to all the guys, they're pretty positive we can get it going and string performances together, because we have done it before,'' said Skiles, adding he would have fretted about something even if his team's record was reversed.
``I mean you're always worried or concerned about something that's going on, because you're after perfection. That's where you're trying to get to, so yeah, I'm concerned about things. But I also have belief and confidence in the guys who have been here with us that they can turn it around.''
A HELPFUL WHISTLE: NBA referees will continue doing their part in the fight against cancer this weekend, participating in the ``Blow the Whistle on Cancer'' campaign for the fourth straight year.
The officials will donate $12,000 to the V Foundation, a figure that will be matched by the NBA. The National Basketball Referees Association and the NBA have contributed more than $40,000 over the last two years.
``We'd like to say it's a wholly unselfish act, but in contributing to The V Foundation, we really help ourselves,'' referees union spokesman Lamell McMorris said. ``We have all had family, friends, and colleagues battle cancer. Since every contribution to The Foundation goes directly to research, this is a great way to support them.''
The ``Blow the Whistle on Cancer'' campaign began Wednesday and includes all games through Tuesday.
GRADING ON A CURVE: Gregg Popovich might give the Spurs' defense a C-plus so far - and at this early stage of the season, that's pretty good if you ask some other NBA coaches.
``We're about where we were last year defensively,'' Popovich said before a game Monday in Sacramento. ``I'd rate us about a C-plus.''
Popovich called his team's defensive field goal percentage ``God awful.''
Yet what is considered poor by Popovich's standards for the defending champion Spurs, might not be seen that way elsewhere.
First-year Kings coach Reggie Theus figures most teams aren't playing great on the defensive end just yet.
``He can say that,'' Theus said of Popovich. ``He's won four out of nine (championships). His standard is a lot higher than the rest of the league. This time of year, you have to believe nobody's playing their best defense. I think most of the league is below a C-plus. If you grade on a curve, it's pretty (darn) good.''
THE BUCKS STOP: People may have missed it, but the Milwaukee Bucks were recently a first-place team.
Yes, the Bucks, who haven't had a winning record in five years.
The celebration was brief, however, because Milwaukee then lost badly at home against the sub.-500 Philadelphia 76ers.
``We kind of shot ourselves in the foot because we were a first-place team for one day and then we went and a lost a home game that we shouldn't have lost,'' coach Larry Krystkowiak said, ``and all of sudden we're in the middle of the Central Division. So the reality is we weren't a first-place team. If we were a first-place team, we would have won that game.''
The Bucks had won five straight to reach the top, including victories over Cleveland, the Lakers and Dallas in the same week. Even then, they didn't get much notice, probably because people aren't used to expecting much from Milwaukee.
So Krystkowiak realizes it will take time to prove that his team is for real - especially when the Bucks blew their first chance to do it.
``Definitely it takes longer, but if you're only there for one day, nobody's going to notice, anyway,'' he said. ``So we kind of had control of our destiny a little bit. If we would have done what we should have done, then we'd be talking a little different right now. Maybe we weren't ready to handle that, being at the top.''
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.

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