SALT LAKE CITY — Time after time this season, the Utah Jazz have played the role of the tortoise.
And in an oft-repeated tale, their opponents have happily acquiesced and zoomed off the starting line a la the hare.
Eight times, as has been well documented, the Utah Tortoises not only slowly and steadily got back into the races but they won them to add more chapters to their crazy comeback storybook of a season.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was not amused by how that predictable script played out again Saturday night in Dallas. It especially made him grumpy that Utah's latest comeback — rallying from an early 25-point lead only to tie it late — didn't include a happily-ever-after ending.
"Well," Sloan said after the Jazz's 103-97 loss to the Mavericks, "I think you better come play the first quarter, to make a long story short."
The Jazz were somehow able to overcome sluggish starts in six previous road wins — at Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, Charlotte, Portland and Los Angeles — but they fizzled at the finish after catching up to the Mavericks.
Utah trailed 29-4 midway through the first quarter Saturday and 34-19 by the end of the opening period. The Jazz then outscored Dallas in three consecutive quarters to make a game out of it before Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry ruined their rally.
Asked about Saturday night, Sloan said he couldn't wrap his mind around the psychological difference between his team in the early stages compared to later on.
"I'm not a psychologist," the Jazz coach said. "All I know is when you come out here on the floor, play hard, get after people, guard them, show them respect but guard them.
"I don't think we did that to start with. When we started doing that we got back in the ballgame a little bit."
Part of Saturday's problem, of course, was phenomenal shooting by the Mavericks, who hit 11 of their first 12 shots, including a blistering 7-for-8 on 3-pointers.
"Maybe we could've been a little bit more aggressive," Paul Millsap said. "But they hit some tough shots in our face and there ain't nothing you can really do about that."
But slow starts aren't an anomaly. Through 25 games, coming out sputtering has been as much of a trademark for this team as comebacks. The Jazz average just 23.6 points in the first quarter and 47.2 points by halftime.
After the break, however, Utah puts up an average of 52.8 points.
That vast improvement isn't because of rip-roaring halftime speeches, either. Veteran Raja Bell's locker room pep talk in the 22-point Miami comeback is the only inspirational chat the team has openly talked about.
The Jazz, for whatever reason, simply play better as games progress.
"That's not a secret. We can't keep starting the ballgames like that," Jazz captain Deron Williams said. "It just looks like we're a step slow. We don't come out executing. It's just a mindset that we need to have — everybody. Every one of us."
Further, the Jazz have yet to hold a lead from tipoff to the final buzzer and they've only not fallen behind in one game (Dec. 1 win over Indiana).
"We want to come out and do that to teams, blow teams out of the way early," the All-Star added. "And we don't have that yet."
Learning how to channel that production and energy early on might be the biggest challenge facing this team.
"It's something that if we had the answer to then maybe we would do it," Jazz backup guard Ronnie Price said. "But I think the best way to get past all that is coming out fighting early in the ballgame and not get yourself in that situation."
Millsap described Dallas as having confidence and swagger from the beginning, and he believes the Jazz need to come out with a similar giddy-up in their gallop.
"I think we have to force ourselves to have it in the first quarter," Millsap said. "We know what type of talent we have, what we can do. We've just got to do it from jump — from jump to finish."
Added Williams: "We have to be the aggressor and we're not to start the ballgames. We let teams attack us and we kind of retreat and (then) we finally get it going, but sometimes it's a little too late."
Tonight will mark a new beginning for the 17-8 Jazz, Millsap said firmly while talking about the rematch with 8-15 Golden State — a team that beat Utah 85-78 in Oakland on Nov. 5.
The Jazz are no longer interested in being the tortoise. They want to take a turn being the hare.
"I guarantee," the power forward said, "when we come out we're going to be more aggressive in that first quarter. ... We will be more aggressive."
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