by Jake Appleman and Russ Bengtson

The biggest thing to take away from this historic night is that the record-setting losing streak—and how it’s remembered—has been more about the journey than the result. To simply say the Nets took the road less traveled would be insulting to Robert Frost. They took the road less traveled, stopped at the side of the highway to let multiple dagger-wielding hitchhikers in, ate colonic-inducing fast food at every rest stop, and lost the friggin’ map, but only in the fourth quarter of close games.

All of it has been harrowing, and much of it undeserved: The opening night fourth-quarter letdown in Minnesota that should have never happened; Dwyane Wade’s buzzer beater after Q-Rich banked in a three to give Miami a chance; two hard-fought losses to the Sixers; a valiant effort against the Celtics; and some stinkers too, highlighted by the unmitigated disaster that was their recent West Coast swing.

Tonight was just the rancid cherry on top of a shit sandwich of bad luck, broken bones and missed opportunities. The Mavs shot 17 of 19 in the second quarter, scoring 49 points. The Nets outscored them in the other three. Sometimes talent just laughs in the face of effort. No really, ask Tim Thomas. He was there.

If anyone in the media truly believed this group deserved this, Tony Barrise’s postgame presser would have lasted longer than four minutes.

As it is, it’d be hard for any right-minded individual to overly rip a team whose fans—in the good seats, no less—start a “let’s go Dallas!” chant to celebrate infamy. Good to see they care. And the guy with the ” Never-Ending-Terrible-Season” sign seemed strangely proud of himself. “I’m on TV! Did you see me on SportsCenter?” Ugh.

The looks on the fans’ faces as they exited the morgue were a strange mix of stupefied embarrassment and typical indifference. Throw in a few masochistic grins for good measure.

I’d like to say those faces told the whole story, but then you’d stop reading.

PREGAME

A quick note on the Dallas dry-erase boards, as we seem to be attempting to become the authorities on the things. They also use black, red and blue, although the only thing in blue is the Nets roster, and the only thing in red is the underlining. The offensive and defensive notes appear to have been written by different people—the defense is in cursive, the offense in print. The final admonition is this: “*** THIS IS ABOUT ONE GAME. -PROCESS OF IMPROVING. -EXECUTION. -TRANSITION. -DECISIONS.” There’s no mention of how embarassing it would be to lose to an 0-17 team.

The media pours out of Tom Barrise’s pregame interview session, which took place in the tiny assistant coaches office. As the horde emerges, it appears the only thing lacking is cattle prods. It might as well have been a Basketball Writers of America meeting. The media room coat rack hasn’t seen this much love since the ’03 Finals.

While we’re on the subject of things that are too small, a few words on Courtney Lee’s skinny jeans:

If you weren’t aware of the circumstances surrounding the game and wandered into the home locker room beforehand, you wouldn’t have any idea that the Nets were teetering on the precipice of record-setting ignominy. The room is overflowing with giggles and laughterCourtney Lee, thanks to the aforementioned pair of what I’m going to call “stone washed Lupe Fiasco thigh mittens.”

CDR presses the pants up to his waist to gauge just how short they are and hilarity follows. If these guys are nervous, it isn’t showing through. And if you thought Kanye’s style was completely transcendent, HA (!) you lose; score one for 1997, Allen Iverson and real hip-hop. (That noise you hear in the background is Sheek Louch screaming, “REAL HIP-HOP!”)

I will preface this next note with a disclaimer: Up until this year, I hated fantasy basketball. Just loathed it. Absolutely despised it for plenty of reasons we don’t need to get into. [I still despise it.] But then I joined two low-level pay leagues because I respect the folks running them, and ever since I’ve enjoyed myself. (I’m well aware that this may only be because I’m essentially trying to protect an investment, which means I’m just another low-grade degenerate gambler. Awesome.)

Now, Josh Howard is on my fantasy team, but he’s also been injured and thus unproductive. My squad, as currently constructed, will play three fewer games than my opponent this week. Naturally, it’s crossed my mind to go all out for the win and drop Josh or injured Latvian ostrich Andris Biedrins. Wanting to get the scoop from the man himself, I ask J-5 when he’s actually coming back, as he looked pretty good running through drills before the game. He says next week and a long discussion ensues about why I probably shouldn’t drop him.

Josh is appreciative of my support, but I’m suddenly wracked with guilt. It’s as if an imaginary combination of Gordon Gekko and The Talented Mr. Roto pressured me to commit an insider trading crime against fantasy sports. This is funny because you could argue that fantasy sports are an insider trading crime against real sports.

Seeking to rectify the situation, I give Josh a copy of the new SLAM, which I paid five bucks for at a newsstand. I explain that by transferring something of monetary value in exchange for the information, I feel more like the guy that paid a broker for advice than somebody who stole information out of privilege.

(You can counter that it’s not fair when the broker is the actual stock, but I’d respond by noting that nobody knows how a nagging ankle injury will play out, not even the dude whose ankle it is…What’s that? I’m getting locked in a cell with Brandon Funston, 27 cyber nerds and a running stats ticker with no visual aids? Well then [Samuel L. Jackson voice] get on with it, motherfuckers!)

Josh and I move on to talking about his Winston Salem charity work with CP3. Shawn Marion, having given up on understanding the transaction we just made, snatches the new SLAM from Josh and flips through it eagerly.

It’s around this time when the blonde giant crashes into the locker room. Dirk Nowitzki throws the door open with a crash, inadvertently demolishing the flimsy partition that keeps prying eyes from glimpsing, well, James Singleton. Dirk pauses to assess the damage, then strides through the locker room, loping like a bodybuilder, arms held far from his sides. He enters the bathroom and—thanks to his new, wider profile—crashes into the doorframe. We decide that his new moniker is “The Incredible Goldilocks.” He coincidentally re-emerges from the back just as the locker room is closed to the media, and heads out into the hall with us, where he puts both feet into a large rubberband to do lateral drills. Together with another member of the national media, we begin to compose imaginary leads: “All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, his ankles bound by a rubberband, scored 36 points last night as his Dallas Mavericks defeated the New Jersey Nets 112-76…”

FIRST QUARTER

Mark Cuban, seated a few rows behind the Mavericks bench, stands until the Mavs score. An annoying habit, but he doesn’t stand long. Besides, there aren’t many fans behind him—or anywhere else, for that matter. Meanwhile, the media crowd is, as my colleague stated earlier, ridiculous. The New York Times has a beatwriter and a columnist here, but left the Knicks to fend for themselves in Orlando. Bad craziness.

Two straight beautiful lob passes—Dirk to Damp for a pretty layup and Kidd to Rodrigue Beaubois for an alley-oop flush—push the Mavs’ early lead to 17-9. Another Kidd-Beaubois connection—oop of the month?—and it’s 19-11. That was beautiful. Kidd’s passing, along with some early aggressiveness shooting the ball [his first bucket is an open three], indicate that he wants toTerrence Williams a) turn back the clock and b) stomp on his former team while stamping them into the record books. None of that should surprise.

The Nets come back, though. They’re nothing if not resilient. (Then again, given their record, I suppose they ARE nothing.) Terrence Williams gets free on a breakaway, times his steps, and rises until his eyes are damn near level with the rim, throwing it down hard and putting the Nets up three. “MR. T!!!!!,” the irrepressible Gary Sussman crows in a hardwood paroxysm. The throwdown is answered by the languid Tim Thomas, Paterson’s finest, who sticks a three.

Dirk’s passing is just…is just…it just shouldn’t be that good. I asked him after the game about his pinpoint precision. His response: “When I first got into the league, I wasn’t much of a passer, that’s for sure, but I’ve been in this system for a long time. I just know where my guys are, know who’s cutting, know when Jet’s open and needs to get the ball. I’m comfortable out there. I’ve been in this league for 12 years, so it’s been a long time.”

We’re knotted up at 28-all at the end of 1, with the Mavs shooting a torrid 70.6 percent. Well, it seems torrid at the time.

SECOND QUARTER

Sean Williams is as maddening a player as they come. The physical skills are boundless, but there seems to be some sort of a disconnect. He’s the Nate Robinson of defense. He smothers Dirk Nowitzki on the baseline, who’s eventually harassed into the turnover by a drop-down Devin double. Next time down, Williams fouls Nowitzki, crashing his hip into the seven-footer’s shoulder.

The Mavs go on a 9-0 run after Devin Harris misses the free throw on a four point play opportunity. That about sums up the Nets’ season.

The Mavericks won’t miss. I’m half expecting Mike Iuzzolino and Derek Harper to show up along with and the original NBA Jam announcer because there’s a whole lot of vintage “he’s on fire” going on right now.

Brad Davis’s mustache has 13 points on five-of-eight from the floor. Also, some guy proposes to his girlfriend during a time out. Perhaps this is because he’s shy, and doesn’t want to do it in front of a crowd.

What we have here is a slaughter. A game that was tied at the start of the quarter is a 27-point rout by the end. The Mavericks score 49 points on 90 percent shooting from the floor. Most teams don’t shoot 90 percent in pre-game warmups. This wasn’t a clinic as much as it was repudiation from a higher power. The Nets are doomed.

THIRD QUARTER

Captivating lowlight: Sean Williams simultaneously manages to foul Dirk Nowitzki and goal-tend his shot.

This sums things up pretty well, too: Bobby Simmons catches the ball on the baseline, and, if he spins away from it, he has an open path for a dunk. Instead he spins towards the baseline, and has to take an awkward three-stepback fallaway that misses badly. Terrence Williams fouls Erick Dampier, who hits both, and Lawler’s Law takes effect with time left in the third.

FOURTH QUARTER

The Mavericks don’t score until a Jason Terry free throw with 9:17 to go. Does it matter? Not really.

A few minutes later, all the photographers along the baseline leap up and start firing into the crowd across from the Nets bench. Is it Jay-Z? Kerry Kittles? The ghost of Drazen Petrovic? No. Two fans have donned paper bags (with Santa hats stapled to the tops) with “0-18″ across the front. They offer thumbs-downs to the cameras. Unless the tickets were free (which, admittedly, is a distinct possibility), I don’t get it.

A side note to the side note. Jay-Z, co-owner, not in attendance. Sorry Trenton Hassell, he prefers the theoretical future Brooklyn Nets to the current product. No offense, of course.

There is no mercy rule in the NBA, but the end is indeed merciful. The final score is 117-101, as the Nets cross the hundred-point barrier for the first time this season. A small jewel to pluck from the flaming wreckage.

POSTGAME

A Tom Barrise quote, because let’s face it, those will be rare in the future: “They just exploded on us.” Yes, yes they did.

Listening to the opposing coach following yet another Nets loss is painful. They’re careful not to insult the opposition, but in a way that makes you think how awful things must be on the other side. Rick Carlisle treads as carefully as anyone: “You’re playing the opponent, but you’re also going up against the expectations for yourself.” And, even more carefully. “The guys that they have are playing hard, and that’s a tribute to Lawrence [Frank] and Tommy. They’re gonna keep battling.” (“Also, we shot 90 F*CKING PERCENT IN THE SECOND QUARTER!!!!,” he fails to gleefully add.)

Got a chance to catch up with Drew Gooden, one of my favorite NBA personalities. Drew was talking with Beaubois and James Singleton about Europe. I asked what his favorite European city was.

“Holland,” he replied.

There’s a chance he thought I said “country”, or just wanted to be funny. Either way, it’s always fun to catch up with Drew, who added symmetry to the proceedings by noting that he lost 13 straight during his rookie season with Memphis and 19 straight with Orlando the following year. Now? After stints with Cavs, Spurs and Mavs, Drew just appreciates winning.

We can only hope these Nets will do the same soon.

But we have to be realistic. Hope is in short supply. The Nets have yet to play with a complete roster, but it’s hard to imagine that Keyon Dooling, Jarvis Hayes and Yi Jianlian will add much in terms of pure talent. Kiki Vandeweghe, cleared to take over as coach now that Barrise took the record-breaking bullet, is unlikely to have any magical gameplans. The ’99 Clippers and ’88-89 Heat had reason to celebrate last night. The ’72-73 Sixers may be popping Champagne by the end of the year. Which, for the Nets and their dwindling fanbase, can’t come soon enough.