Mavericks bring playoff game face

HOUSTON -- For much of this far-from-regular season, the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks' mantra has been, just make the playoffs and try to peak at that point.

Maybe congratulations are in order.

The playoffs have started. Not officially, but in the Mavs' minds. If they want to be around when the real deal gets going, the Mavs better play like their life's on the line for the next month.

Coach Rick Carlisle emphasized that to his team in the Toyota Center visitors' locker room before Saturday night's tip-off. He told the Mavs to treat this home-and-home series with Houston like a mini-playoff series.

Game 1 definitely delivered playoff-like intensity, if not late-game execution. The Mavs scrapped out a 101-99 overtime win, boarding the plane in Houston in fifth place in the Western Conference standings instead of on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.

Yes, the Mavs would have slipped to ninth in the standings -- lottery territory -- if Houston's Chase Budinger had hit an open 3 from the corner at the overtime buzzer.

That's how much these games matter with a six-pack of teams scrapping for the final five playoff bids in the West, separated by only a game and a half in the standings. One win or one loss can mean a swing of three or four seeds.

"Biggest win of the year for us," Carlisle said. "It really was."

The Mavs can't afford to go through the motions anymore, as they have at times while complaining about the crazy, lockout-compressed schedule. They looked up after going 2-7 during a 12-game stretch coming out of the All-Star break and realized that they couldn't take a playoff berth for granted.

The scrappy Rockets aren't going to make it easy. Neither are the improving Utah Jazz, much less the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets or even the sleeper Phoenix Suns.

"We definitely knew then that it's going to be on for the rest of the season," said Dirk Nowitzki, sporting four fresh stitches over his right eye after his 31-point performance. "Our playoffs just have to start a little bit early. If that means we've got to scrap like we did tonight and grind those wins out, that's what we gotta do."

Consider the previous couple of games, when the Mavs got punked by the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs, a painful reminder that they'd have to fight for the right to make a repeat bid.

"At the end of the year, on April 26th, we'll know where things are at, but we've got a team that's very aware of things," Carlisle said. "There's no fear of not qualifying. We've just got to make sure we're taking the right steps to make sure that we're playing the best that we can play every game."

Jason Terry, the sixth man whose focus has drifted because of his uncertain contract status at times this season, certainly got the message.

"They said it was a playoff game," Terry said, "and that's all I needed to hear."

And Jet delivered like the last few games of the NBA Finals. Terry scored 14 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, hitting the go-ahead shot on a pull-up jumper with 36.5 seconds remaining.

Houston focused on keeping Nowitzki from killing them down the stretch and succeeded, hugging him on pick-and-rolls and holding him without a bucket for the final 11:10 of regulation and the entire overtime period. That opened it up for Dirk's closing sidekick to do work.

Take, for example, the pull-up that put the Mavs up for good. After trainers got the gash above Nowitzki's eye to stop bleeding during the timeout, Rockets big man Marcus Camby got all up in his grill on a pick-and-roll, essentially creating a double screen for Terry to come off of an knock down a wide-open midrange J.

"That's why he's one of the best clutch players in this league," Nowitzki said.

That's why, Terry reminded, he has to be on the court during crunch time. Hell broke loose in the locker room in Phoenix when Rodrigue Beaubois missed two potential OT-forcing shots in a loss during that dreadful 2-7 stretch.

But it's a nonissue now. Terry will be on the floor when the games are on the line. These games matter too much.

"It's time to win," Terry said.

This win wasn't a thing of beauty by any stretch of the imagination.

The Mavs choked up a three-point lead in the final 10.9 seconds of regulation, in part because Nowitzki missed a free throw when he had a chance to ice the game. They gifted the Rockets a chance to win it at the end of overtime, committing an eight-second violation to give Houston one more possession.

The standings don't consider style points.

"We made some mistakes, but at least we found a way to win," Nowitzki said. "In this league, in this season, a win is a win."

But this win was the biggest of the season, according to the Mavs coach.

"No question," Terry said. "And the next one will be even bigger."

As wild as the West is, it'll be that way until the real playoffs begin.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.