DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks managed to dig themselves out of the hole this time.
That doesn't make the trend of terrible first quarters any less troubling.
The Mavericks opened their 98-93 win Tuesday night over the Detroit Pistons with a dozen minutes of miserable offensive basketball, scoring 14 points on 28.6 percent shooting. And that was actually an improvement over their last first quarter, when they set the tone for Sunday's blowout loss to the Los Angeles Lakers with a bricklaying clinic (13 points on 16.6 percent shooting).
Perhaps fatigue could be pinpointed as the problem, since the trip to LA was the butt end of a back-to-back and the finale of a three-game road trip. Only one problem with that theory: The Mavs opened the trip by sputtering to 17 points in the first quarter of a loss to the Houston Rockets.
"I don't want to say slump, but we're starting out slow," point guard Jason Kidd said. "We've got to recognize that and address it."
The solution might to change the starting lineup.
The plan entering the season was to slide Josh Howard, a former All-Star at small forward, over to shooting guard to make room for Shawn Marion. However, Howard's surgically repaired left ankle put those plans on hold. Howard has come off the bench since returning in early December, allowing coach Rick Carlisle to manage his minutes while easing him back into the Mavs' mix.
J.J. Barea, who is generously listed as a 6-footer, has filled in as Kidd's starting backcourt partner. For a while, Barea also filled Howard's customary role as the Mavs' "energy bunny early in games," as Dirk Nowitzki puts it.
But the going has gotten much tougher for Barea, who has defensive deficiencies due to his size, now that he's become a focal point of foes' scouting reports. He's had a total of two points on 1-of-9 shooting in the three recent first quarters in which the Mavs were held to the teens.
Despite his diminutive status, Barea is at his best when he's penetrating and finishing in the paint, but opponents have made that difficult by "showing" more with the big men on pick-and-rolls. His outside touch has also abandoned him recently. His scoreless performance against the Pistons marked the seventh consecutive game that he hasn't made a 3-pointer.
"They're paying more attention to me, so it makes it a little harder, but I think it's all about my outside shot," Barea said. "If my outside shot goes in, it's easier to attack."
The question the coaches have to answer is would it benefit the Mavs -- and Barea -- to return the undersized combo guard to his change-of-pace role as a reserve.
"We'll just roll from game to game and see what happens," said Nowitzki, who was scoreless in the first quarter against the Pistons but finished with 22 points. "There are going to be some games where he can't start, where's he just too little, I think, against bigger, physical lineups."
Carlisle declined to discuss his thoughts on the issue, preferring to focus on the "energy and disposition" he wants the Mavs to play with at the beginning of games. Sixth man Jason Terry, who scored a game-high 26 points, started the second half instead of Barea.
Howard has played 30 or more minutes in four of the last five games, an indication that his health isn't holding him back from reclaiming his role as a starter. That would represent a significant adjustment for the Mavs, who would rely much more on moving and cutting and less on pick-and-rolls at the beginning of games with their "big" lineup on the floor.
It's a matter of when the timing is right to make that move. That might be now, with the Mavs trying to figure out how to get out of their early-game rut.