The Dallas Mavericks' last two road losses have put the remaining four games and postseason in clear focus and have taken this 66-game season full circle to what owner Mark Cuban has preached from the start: Just get in.
It's the only option left.
A top seed was lost long ago and now it's either sixth, seventh or eighth and then go for broke. The defending champs, revamped edition, will start the playoffs on the road. They'll enter as heavy underdogs against the Thunder, Spurs, Lakers or Clippers, not an enticing option among them.
The priority now is to foster a quick regroup from the road disappointment and take care of the final two home games with a swift elimination of the desperate Houston Rockets tonight and then get a no-worry win over the woefully depleted Golden State Warriors on Friday.
The Rockets come to Dallas as losers of four in a row. Their margin for error is razor thin. Lose and it's virtually lights out. Win and they match the Mavs in the loss column with an extra game to play.
"Their best shot," said Dirk Nowitzki when asked what to expect from the Rockets. "That's another team that always competes. I don't care who they throw out there, they play hard."
Get those two W's as a defending champion should on its home court and the Mavs, 34-28, will get their playoff spot and their cake, too, with a most advantageous schedule to follow.
The NBA schedule-makers, brutal to Dallas early on and downright cruel with the post-All-Star break nine-in-12 stretch, take good care of this aging bunch in the season's final week.
The Mavs will have four days off between Saturday night's game at Chicago and Thursday's finale at Atlanta.
"That's like an All-Star break," Cuban said a couple weeks ago. "We've just got to be in good shape when we get there."
And by we, Cuban really means 39-year-old point guard Jason Kidd. If the Chicago and Atlanta games mean nothing more than last-minute jockeying for the final three seeds, then the suddenly healthy Mavs -- with the exception of Rodrigue Beaubois' improving calf strain -- are looking at more than a week of rest and practice prior to the playoffs.
Practice?! It's been a lost ritual for every team in the league this season. Yet Cuban has consistently harped that practice time could potentially produce dramatic improvement for his team that is just .500 since the start of February and worse since the All-Star break.
A week of practices for the first time since training camp, constant training-room treatment sessions and solid nights of sleep at home before the postseason could be the Mavs' last and best hope to salvage this strange and mostly underwhelming season that threatens to mimic the Miami Heat's lost season after winning the 2006 title over the Mavs.
The Heat are the last NBA champion to both start the next season's playoffs on the road and bow out in the first round, going down in a sweep to the Chicago Bulls.
"This time of year is fun basketball," Jason Terry said. "We've been saving ourselves all year, so I don't think it's a situation where we're going to be beat down or tired. I love it."
The regular-season results against their four potential playoff foes suggest the Mavs might be on a Heat-like one-and-done path. They're 4-11 against the four with the Lakers having completed a four-game sweep Sunday. The Thunder took three of four by stealing the Mavs' specialty of making clutch plays.
The Mavs can claim that they're much closer to a .500 mark than their record indicates. The Thunder, Lakers and Clippers all won games on buzzer-beaters. Of course, the Clippers can claim they're a missed Caron Butler 3-pointer from completing the series sweep and the Spurs' Danny Green's buzzer-beater was wiped away by replay in a game Dallas eventually won in overtime.
"That's how crazy this league is, a couple bounces here and there," Nowitzki said. "It's tough. This league is tough. You've got to earn it. Nothing's going to be given to you in this league."
The Mavs' recent record also doesn't suggest an upcoming lightning run through the postseason. Although since the banishment of Lamar Odom and the return of Kidd, the Mavs are rallying around stronger efforts, if not victories to show for it.
"What's interesting is you're starting to find out what guys you can count on in key situations and you can get used to what lineups that you need to have out there on the floor," Terry said. "Again, all season long we haven't had our full team."
Now they do and if they take care of business on their home floor, the Mavs will open the postseason just the way their owner envisioned -- healthy, rested and, theoretically at least, ready to roll.
What happens next will be up to them.