Then it all fell apart.
After Yao put Houston up by 14 early in the third quarter, he didn't score again, letting Jason Kidd and the Dallas Mavericks rally for a 95-84 victory Wednesday that helped mix up the conference standings.
The teams left the court not knowing where they stood, mainly because the San Antonio-New Orleans game went into overtime. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban asked for that game to be shown on the overhead scoreboard, and by the time it came on the Spurs were finishing off a win that gave them the No. 3 seed and the Southwest Division title the Rockets let slip away.
Dallas landed the No. 6 seed and a first-round matchup with San Antonio. Houston has to deal with the agony of going from the cusp of No. 2 all the way down to No. 5. The Rockets knew they were playing the Trail Blazers when the Spurs' game finished. Houston had a chance at home-court advantage in that series, but -- making this night a total loss -- Portland won its finale 104-76 against Denver to move up to the No. 4 seed.
"We're still in the playoffs," Houston forward Ron Artest said. "We still have a chance when the chips fall. ... We got better as the season went on and our team should get better throughout the playoffs."
The Rockets led 76-75 with 7:21 left, but by then the Mavericks already were on a serious roll. They'd used an 18-4 burst to tie it late in the third quarter and Jason Terry had just hit a 3-pointer; Kidd would follow with another 3 that put Dallas ahead for good.
Houston scored only 14 points in the final period. Yao took just one shot in eight minutes, all while being guarded by Brandon Bass -- who is 10 inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter.
"The big fella was rolling and we sort of got away from him, which is probably the dumbest thing we can do, especially when the big fella gets it rolling," Rockets forward Shane Battier said. "We started to look elsewhere and started to take long, contested jumpers, which fed into their game plan of getting out and running. They had a couple of 3s and got back in the game. After that, it was tough to slow them down."
Yao finished with 24 points, with 19 coming in the second quarter. He didn't score in the final 21 minutes, 25 seconds. His stats the rest of the way: two missed shots, four personal fouls.
"We had a ball-movement problem and I didn't hold my post well," Yao said. "It's my problem."
Bass made it tough for Yao to catch the ball, mainly by camping out in front of him.
"He did it with his legs, his body and his heart," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "I mean he really, really worked out there and made Yao work, and just our activity defensively as a team took a quantum leap when you've got a guy working like that."
Said Bass: "When you go up against a guy that big, you've got to be physical."
Kidd had 11 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds for his third triple-double of the season and 103rd of his career. Terry scored 14 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter, making his first six shots; the only one he missed was a long 3 after the outcome had been decided. Dirk Nowitzki had 30 points and 15 rebounds.
"We're as confident as we've been all season," Nowitzki said. "Hopefully we can carry it into the playoffs."
By winning five of their last six games overall, the Mavs vaulted from the No. 8 seed to No. 6.
Dallas started this season 2-7, but this final victory was No. 50 of the season. Terry left the court making a 5 and an 0 with his hands to celebrate the ninth straight season reaching that mark.
The Mavericks also started the season 0-4 at home, but this made them 15-1 in Dallas since the All-Star break.
"It's good to have momentum going into the playoffs," Carlisle said. "It doesn't guarantee anything but I really feel like it's good for our team to be winning heading in."
Kyle Lowry scored 15 for Houston and Artest had 10. ... Mavs swingman Josh Howard returned from a one-game rest of his sore left ankle to miss his first seven shots. He finished with 15 points. ... Nowitzki cracked 20 points for the 25th straight game. ... Houston had won two straight in Dallas. ... Only LeBron James (seven) and Chris Paul (six) had more triple-doubles this season than the 36-year-old Kidd. ... The high stakes of this game were obvious from the start. On the opening possession, Nowitzki shoved Luis Scola just for the heck of it, then Artest hooked an arm around Nowitzki to twist him out of the way and was called for a foul.