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Jazz seek winning starter-sub mix

Theories abound over reasons for club’s slow openings

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Some nights, the Jazz's starters play with purpose from beginning to end. Many other nights, the Jazz bench has come to their rescue.

Then there are nights like Saturday, when neither looks particularly into it, and Utah winds up losing, as it did in double-overtime to the 12-win Memphis Grizzlies.

Should the two units actually get on the same page on the same night, the Jazz could be one tough team to beat. But lately it usually seems to be one or the other — and sometimes neither.

"I think probably we need to all pull it together," usual starting small forward Donyell Marshall said recently.

The sooner the better, for the Jazz's sake.

Utah heads into tonight's game against Denver having won seven of its past nine games, yet it is still struggling to stay over .500. In large part that's because the 19-17 Jazz are opening so slow.

In four of Utah's five outings so far in 2002, in fact, the Jazz have trailed when coach Jerry Sloan made his first substitution of the game.

"I just think we need to go out there and start off with defense," said 20-year-old DeShawn Stevenson, the Jazz's starting shooting guard. "We're trying to start off with offense, and it's putting us in a hole."

That's one theory.

Another: Mere makeup of the starting unit hinders getting into any sort of flow.

Since early December, the Jazz have started one rookie, center Jarron Collins, and Stevenson, an NBA sophomore. When Marshall is out, as he was while nursing a bruised right hip versus Memphis, they add another relatively inexperienced player — in Saturday's case, third-year forward Scott Padgett, who has all of 10 pro starts.

The two constants, of course, are John Stockton and Karl Malone, in their 18th and 17th seasons with the Jazz, respectively.

The mix, Sloan suggested after one particularly awful start, is oft-times combustible.

"We've got a mix of older guys and younger guys," he said after Phoenix got up 30-18 on Utah after one quarter last Tuesday, "and when we don't execute, then we kind of feel sorry for ourselves, and we just kind of hang out.

"That's when you've got to be tough mentally and fight through it. I mean, it's just like in practice: It's sometimes not real fun to go to practice and know you have to go over the same thing again you've gone over 9 million times," Sloan added. "But if you go with that attitude, you're probably not going to get anything out of it. Sometimes that complacency, or whatever you want to call it, sets in, and it's tough."

Getting young and old to all play together in the NBA often is tougher than getting high-schoolers and middle-schoolers to sit together through the same game of Monopoly.

Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $2 zillion.

"That takes time," backup point guard John Crotty said. "I think you can attribute (our slow starts) to that."

Marshall, however, isn't so sure: "I think a lot of people always . . . say 'young guys this' and 'young guys that.' But if you're good enough to play in this league, it doesn't matter how old you are. And these guys we have now that are starting — DeShawn (Stevenson) and Jarron (Collins) — are both good enough. It's not them two that's holding us back."

Then what?

"It's all five of us starters. . . . We've just been coming out with sluggish starts," he said. "We haven't been coming out with the energy and the pizzazz that we need.

"I think maybe sometimes we feel that because we're a starting unit we can get away with it a little more — but instead we're coming out digging ourselves holes."

Either way, Stevenson and Collins should be benefiting greatly from playing with Stockton and Malone.

"They're in there with the . . . greatest tandem of all-time," Marshall said, "(and) that takes pressure off of those two."

Less pressure and less responsibility.

By playing them with the vets, the Jazz can hide their youngsters much more than if they were go-to guys on the second unit.

"As long as I've been coaching, I've always played younger guys in that situation," said Sloan, who started veteran swingman Bryon Russell — a sometimes starter, sometimes-sub throughout his nine NBA seasons — 48 games when he was a rookie. "I think it's a great learning process."

Problematic, though, is when the kids forget they are still very much in the proving stage of their very short careers.

"They're playing in a little bit of a comfort zone, knowing they're playing with guys that can help them," Sloan said. "But they have to help themselves out first — and not hang out like they're a 10-year, 20-year veteran.

"Young guys should have energy," he added. "That's the one thing: If you don't like to play basketball at age 20, do you think you'd like to play it age 30? That's a concern that I have."

E-MAIL: tbuckley@desnews.com