SAN ANTONIO - If Andrei Kirilenko gets a wake-up call Tuesday morning, reaches over for his hotel room phone and doesn't feel any back pain, it may be tough for him to contain his giddiness.
Out since Nov. 8, and having experienced three frustrating setbacks as he tried to return from back spasms, Kirilenko believes he's finally on the cusp of returning to the Nets after a 26-game absence.
Provided he doesn't feel any discomfort in his back in the hours leading up to tipoff, Kirilenko thinks he'll play when the Nets (10-20) meet the Spurs (24-7) Tuesday night, marking their second straight New Year's Eve date together at AT&T Center.
Even if it comes with a minutes restriction, if Kirilenko can get back on the court with his teammates, it could be a big emotional lift for a squad that's lost five of its last six games.
"I feel great," Kirilenko said yesterday as he sat with a bag of ice attached to his back.
"I mean, this is what I was waiting for, a normal practice when you can play five-on-five with no limitation. It went well . . . It's getting better every day. So playing for tomorrow, we'll see how it feels in the morning, though, because usually after having a good practice in the morning, that's the main thing: How are you going to feel the next day?
"So I don't want to play the game and then miss two or three games."
Signed to a two-year, $6.5-million deal in the offseason, with the second season being a player option, Kirilenko initially was viewed as a steal for the Nets.
His bargain-basement contract drew the ire of some owners, prompting an investigation by the league into whether Nets billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov had an under-the-table deal with his fellow Russian. The Nets ultimately were cleared.
They haven't had Kirilenko's services much, though. He has played in only four games, logging 53 minutes, and has spent the better part of the past seven-plus weeks rehabbing.
That's why the Nets are ready to open their arms to the 32-year-old swingman, welcoming him into a rotation that could use a high-level, energetic guy.
"It's a positive," Nets coach Jason Kidd said. "It definitely helps the guys when you get an injured player back that's been out for some time. It would definitely be a boost."
In trying to get the spasms under control and alleviate the pain, Kirilenko said he had various methods of treatment, ranging from building up his core body strength, to acupuncture, to the injections he received last month. Although he's dealt with them before in his career, this latest round of spasms seriously derailed his plans to be a major contributor for the Nets.
He thought he might be able to return last week but said his back felt kind of heavy after one practice. But he's hopeful that finally has changed, and he's anxiously awaiting his chance to give the Nets some necessary intangibles.
"What I will try to do is bring some spark, some energy, especially coming from the bench," Kirilenko said. "I don't think I'm going to play a lot of minutes [at first]. But those minutes, especially in the beginning, bring those hustle plays. I think that's what we need, kind of grind those four, five, six possessions in a row, kind of getting to the point where we can stop every attack. I think that's my main goal coming off the bench."