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Alec Burks had to test himself.
The last time he drove to the basket during a game, it had ended with a sickening thud as his body crashed to the court after a hard foul. The fall fractured his left ankle, causing him to miss most of his season for a second straight year. But now, back on the court for the first time in three months, Burks had to try again.
"That's what I wanted to test," he said. "See if I was ready or not."
So early in the fourth quarter of Friday night's game, Burks put the ball on the floor, put his head down and put himself back into drive. The fifth-year guard broke the paint, took a bump from a defender and finished off the glass.
Being Burks means being fearless.
"That's my middle name," he said Friday night.
But after two straight seasons shortened by injuries from hard fouls on hard drives to the hoop, should the young guard be more cautious? Not a chance, Burks said.
"I'm fearless," he said. "If I ever felt like that, I wouldn't be out there."
Burks' ability to slash to the basket is perhaps his best skill. In limited playing time this season, he leads the Jazz in points per game scored off drives (5.3). His ability to withstand contact and escape from tight spaces with a bucket has earned him the nickname "Houdini." But that style-aggressive and exciting as it may be-causes Burks to take more than his fair share of falls. Is it a sustainable approach? Should Burks pull back the reins?
"If I change my game, I feel like I change my future. So I don't want to change," he said. "I may change a little bit, pick and choose, but I've got to play fearless. That's how I play."
In part because of Burks' ability to get to the rim, Dwyane Wade has called the Jazz guard the most underrated player in the NBA.
"He can play," the Miami Heat star said earlier this season. "Because he's in Utah, the world might not know him as much, but players know who can go. … He's one of the toughest guys that I go against."
Judging by the crowd's reaction when Burks made his return to the court Friday following three months spent rehabbing a fractured ankle, Burks' importance to the Jazz is certainly appreciated here. A Jazz team that has struggled with consistency from the bench this season finally got its sixth man back this week, and Burks provided an immediate spark, scoring 11 points in 13 minutes in an overtime loss to the Clippers. And even as the Jazz now fight for their playoff lives, coach Quin Snyder believes getting Burks back on the court for the season's final few games will be just as important.
"Even if it were one game, to me that's one game that happens now as opposed to next October, November, whenever it is," the coach said. "I think there's value to that," Snyder said. "… It may not be pretty right away, but that process is one I think you just have to go through."
On Friday, Burks wasted no time making an impact in his return. He opened the night with a 3-pointer and went on to hit all three of his attempts from beyond the arc. "I couldn't move my foot for four weeks? Five weeks? I've just been working on my shot," he said afterward.
But it was also clear Friday that Burks is not yet back to normal. After scoring on his first drive, Burks tried again for the rim, but stumbled and looked to be lacking his usual explosiveness.
"I think I can do it all," he said. "I don't think I'm the AB that was dunking on everybody right now, but I'm close."
The Jazz expect those kind of ups and downs as Burks reintegrates with his teammates and tries to find himself on the basketball court again. His coach expects some fear, too, even Burks won't admit it.
"Anytime you go through something and get injured, there's a reticence," Snyder said, "whether it's conscious or not. How that impacts his game, I don't know. It's hard to say."
Snyder, however, won't be asking his guard to be more cautious or change his game. The Jazz just want Burks to be Burks.
"I think the primary thing is to get him out there," Snyder said. "Whatever anxiety a player feels after coming back from an injury, let that dissipate and let him gradually get back to being the Alec we had in December."
Jazz at Nuggets
P At Pepsi Center, Denver
Tipoff • Sunday, 3 p.m.
TV • ROOT. Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 39-40; Nuggets 33-47
About the Jazz • They suffered a miserable overtime loss Friday night to a Clippers team resting its entire starting lineup, but the Jazz's hopes for the postseason aren't dead yet. … Alec Burks went 4-for-5 from the floor in his return from a fractured ankle. … Have beaten the Nuggets in all three of their meetings this year.
About the Nuggets • They've been eliminated from playoff contention, but Mike Malone's team is still playing hard and is coming off a win over the Spurs. … Rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay is averaging 12.5 points and 5.5 assists per game. … Leading scorer Danilo Gallinari is out for the rest of the season with an ankle injury.