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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah's C.J. Miles and the rest of the Jazz need to find a way to stop coming out of the gates in their games like cold molasses, yet continue their honey-sweet finishes.

SALT LAKE CITY — In life, there are morning people and there are night owls.

In baseball, there are ace pitchers who excel in early innings and closers who seal the deal in the final frame.

And in the NBA, there is the Utah Jazz — a team that, like firework shows, is known for grand finales instead bang-up beginnings.

As the Jazz prepare for tonight's game against the Atlanta Hawks — one of the many teams they've started off slugglishly against before mustering up a big ending — here is a question in regards to Utah's tendency to tank it shortly after tipoff:

Does it really matter if they begin like cold molasses if their finishes turn out to be as sweet as honey?

The Jazz's habit of slow starts seems like a major point of concern.

Utah has, after all, averaged just 23.0 points in the first quarter this season compared to 25.5 points for its opponents, making the team one of the worst in the NBA when it comes to starts.

"We take a look at the stats, and I think we are, like, almost last place in the NBA in first quarter points," Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko said. "So we have to improve that. You know, we are working in practice hard, but it's still a lot of places to improve."

Team captain Deron Williams concurs. After recent games, he's harped on the fact that Utah has lacked gusto from the get-go.

On Monday, he said he'd like the team to be confident out of the gates and added that the team needs to "stop messing around" early on.

Last Thurdsay, following a defeat in Portland, the All-Star point guard said this in the losing locker room: "We can't keep getting down early. It takes a toll on your body. It takes a toll on you mentally."


Even so, the Jazz are atop the Northwest Division and have managed a 24-11 record — five games better than the 19-16 mark it had this time last year — by turning things around in a big way in the second half.

Utah has been especially strong in the fourth quarter, when it's outscored foes by an average of 26.5-23.1.

That kinda makes the Jazz like those from Los Angeles sporting events to Utah church meetings who are renowned for simply liking to arrive to functions fashionably late.

Jazz guard Raja Bell said it's somewhat of a concern when you have good shots and you're unable to make them to separate yourself from your opponent after the team struggled to do that against the Pistons in Monday's 102-97 win.

But he isn't losing any sleep over it.

"You know, the good thing is we're closing teams," Bell said Monday night. "Sometimes we let them slip, but we still find ways to close them out."

Bell didn't back down from that state of mind at practice Tuesday, either. He admitted the Jazz "get ourselves into precarious situations." But ...

"I think there's a bit too much being made about it," the 34-year-old said. "If you find a way to win, you find a way to win."

He likes that, for the most part, the Jazz have increased their level of play when it matters most.

"I think we tighten up there in the fourth quarter and start really executing our stuff," Bell said. "I think that's why we're such a good fourth-quarter team, and maybe we need to take some cues and do that a little bit better throughout the game."

Jazz coach Jerry Sloan realizes it makes life difficult to have to scrape back into games — and thank heaven for that sparkplug of a second unit — and he's constantly contemplating possible lineup changes.

"That's where people might say we've failed a little bit," Sloan said of the s-l-o-w starts.

"I'm not going to jump off a building," the Hall of Fame coach later added. "That's what they call patience. ... Hopefully, we'll get better. Maybe we'll have to change."

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Williams shook his head when asked if he can accept the clutch finishes and learn to accept the bumbling beginnings.

"I don't want to live with it," Williams said. "I wish we could start better and put teams away early into the games."

Sloan acknowledges that players might be feeling their way around the game's flow and their opponent at first, but he has some advice for guys if they're starting slowly because they need to save gas for later on.

"I say get in better shape," Sloan said. When that response elicited laughter from media members, he quickly replied: "No. I'm serious."

e-mail: jody@desnews.com

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