HOUSTON -- Don't ask how, but the Dallas Mavericks exited the Toyota Center in possession of the No. 2 seed, as the Western Conference gets a little wackier by the day.
A club that's been ripped up and down for its recent run of questionable basketball won its 56th game of the season Monday night and supplanted those loosey-goosey Los Angeles Lakers in the West standings.
The Mavs might be only renting the 2-seed for the night, but then again, maybe not. The Lakers play the San Antonio Spurs in Tinseltown on Tuesday, and who knows what kind of acting we'll see there? The Spurs, with the No. 1 seed locked up, could play their regulars to try to stay a step ahead of the Chicago Bulls in the race for the league's best record. Or Gregg Popovich could decide against it.
The Lakers finish the regular season Wednesday in a game at Sacramento that looks like it will be the Kings' finale there before they take their limited talents to Southern California. So who knows what could be in store for the Lake Show at Arco Arena?
Monday night in Houston was certainly filled with strange stuff. The Mavs were feeling good about a two-game win streak over the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns, and especially about the previous six quarters of solid defense and free-flowing, high-scoring and entertaining basketball.
That all came to a grinding halt against the lottery-bound Houston Rockets, an undermanned and undersized club that was missing power forward Luis Scola and guard Kyle Lowry, and used just seven players.
You see, the Mavs and their fully loaded roster needed overtime to pull out a 98-91 victory. It was ugly. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle and a few others tried to spin it as a good test for the tight basketball to come. But even Carlisle didn't seem convinced.
"Fortunately, we played some of our best minutes in the game in the overtime, which we were due to do because we struggled in the game," Carlisle said, sounding as uninspired as his team played. "The game was all about trying to establish momentum and some traction and all night long untimely turnovers hurt us, but in the overtime we finally got some shot-making and some stops."
The Mavs were fortunate to get to overtime. They coughed up an 85-81 lead with 1:34 to go and trailed 86-85 with 10.8 seconds left. After a timeout, the ensuing play to win the game went haywire. Several passes finally landed in Jason Terry's hands. He dribbled, stumbled and had nothing going out at the arc with time running out and Rockets forward Chuck Hayes draped all over him.
Inexplicably, Hayes got too close and fouled Terry with 1.5 on the clock. Terry went to the line and made the first but missed the second. When the rebound went out of bounds as time expired, Terry was hightailing it down the court as though the Mavs had won, but they hadn't.
They put another five minutes on the clock and Jason Kidd -- who decided not to sit this one out because of the importance of the 2-seed -- had to get geared up for overtime. He played 39 minutes, which was definitely not in the plans. Dirk Nowitzki played 40 and reported that he felt fine.
Of course, had Kidd hit any of his five 3-point attempts or more than one of his seven shots overall, overtime might not have been necessary.
"We might have played five more minutes than we wanted to," Kidd said, "but we got the win, and I thought down the stretch it was good for us to be in a tight game to see how we were going to respond."
The response in overtime was fine. But it must be noted, and Carlisle rightfully did, that the shorthanded Rockets were running on fumes. Goran Dragic played all 53 minutes. Kevin Martin, who scored a game-high 28 points, racked up more than 46 minutes. Hayes, who averages 27.9 minutes, logged 41.
The problem for Dallas was the first 48 minutes. There were 17 turnovers. The Rockets beat them on the boards, and decisively so on the offensive glass. The Mavs' rotation had little form. Peja Stojakovic played 14 minutes. Corey Brewer played nine. Fouls killed Rodrigue Beaubois again. He logged 15 minutes, scored six points and turned it over three times.
"We're going to need to play better than we did tonight," Carlisle said. "But we hung in tonight in a game where the Rockets had it going good and were very aggressive. Look, we'll take the positives that we can, but we're not going to be unrealistic about our performance."
Yes, the Mavs have won three in a row with one left to play. It is possible they could finish the string as the No. 2 seed. But shoot, the Mavs learned long ago that the seed is only a number.
They'll have to win playoff games, and to do that they'll have to be better than they were Monday night.
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.