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What we learned from the Spurs second straight loss to the Grizzlies

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For better or worse, some things just don’t yield themselves to further examination.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs
The Rape of Europa by Titian (painted ca. 1560–1562)
Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Three days ago, I captured an injured fox.

Hard as it may be to believe, that is neither a humble brag nor a gross exaggeration; it’s a fact. I crawled after an injured fox into a ditch on the side of the road that goes past my house, threw a blanket over it, and pinned down the edges by jumping on top.

I had no idea what I was doing. Not when I pulled the four corners of the blanket together and inverted it to wrap the fox up in a cushiony bundle. Not when I lowered the bundle into a large plastic bin (carpeted with old towels) and untied it. And not during the ten minutes that I stared into its almost toffee-colored eyes before being allowed to move close enough to give it food and water.

I subdued and captured a wild animal and learned almost nothing in the process.

Two days later I watched the San Antonio Spurs lose to the Memphis Grizzlies with a not dissimilar end result. I honestly don’t know what happened; I’m at a loss to explain it. Oh sure, I can give you statistical indicators and shuffle forth shooting percentages for examination. I can give you specific examples of some of the flaws in action. I can tell you that the Grizzlies were 15-30 from deep and that they shot a staggering 55.9% on the night (almost 15% better than the Spurs).

I can tell you that Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker, and Rudy Gay combined to go 8-32 from the field or that LaMarcus Aldridge rebounded the ball and defended the rim as badly as (if not worse than) a thirty-eight-year-old Pau Gasol. But what I can’t tell you is why.

I can make reasonable assumptions and shrewd observations. I can grandstand and point to arguments that I and others have made in the past as if they had been fulfilled in the manner of prophecy. I can point to old and consistently referenced adages: San Antonio was outrebounded, outpassed, and even outdone at the charity stripe. The Spurs lost the turnover battle, hitting double digits for the third time in as many games after committing so few for so many contests that their rate would have set an NBA record if maintained over the full course of the season.

Something I can say with complete certainty however is that the San Antonio Spurs were humiliated on their own court in a thirty-one(!) point loss, and that they accomplished this without a single injury or COVID-19-related absence, in a game in which their opponent was missing six of their players, several of whom are key contributors.

By the same token, I have no idea what ailed the fox that I captured outside of a leg that was unable to bear the force of an all-out sprint.

Having grown up in the country, I have wrangled all manner of domesticated (and occasionally feral) animals. I’ve herded cattle, sheep, and a single goat so aged, grotesque, and enthusiastically detestable that my sister named it Jar Jar Binks. I’ve been responsible for the capture of hens, roosters, and guinea-fowl. I’ve even wrestled a pig. What I’ve never seen though is a living, otherwise un-ailing wild animal (and more specifically a predator) lay somewhat docilely on a back road frequented by cars and trucks.

I can remember wondering what was wrong with the fox as I slowly approached it with just about every inch of my open skin covered and sporting a pair of thick rubber gloves. In my world that sort of thing is symptomatic of rabid creatures or an ailment approaching death. But the Fox’s breathing was normal, its eyes were unglazed, its mouth lacked any fleck of telltale foam, and its demeanor lacked frenzy.

I remember the moment of dawning comprehension when the fox bolted into the ditch, rotated awkwardly due to uneven force, and collapsed panting on its side, and the certainty of my disease-free diagnosis until the fox did not attempt to flee the second time that I approached it. I remember the limp resignation its body displayed as I bundled and carried it to my shed, and the placidity with which it regarded its non-human surroundings once there.

It was unnerving. It made no sense. Here was a well-groomed, seemingly well-nourished, but definitely undomesticated creature displaying no obvious signs of disease or greater (think internal) injuries, putting up as little a fight as I’ve seen from any wild animal.

Perhaps it was ill, and illness had led it to wander a well-traveled road where it had been clipped by a passing traveler? Perhaps it had laid outside long enough that it had become dehydrated? Maybe dehydration and malnutrition had led to its weakened state?

Maybe it had eaten something detrimental? (Farmers and ranchers sometimes leave toxic substances in places that vermin and other varmints will encounter them in an attempt to protect their crops and livestock from them. Many a straying cat and dog has been poisoned in this manner.) With each concocted theory I was met with alternatives, biases, and opposites, and left with no clear answers outside of a damaged leg.

Finally, I couldn’t think about it any longer. I got up in the middle of the night, refilled the fox’s water, heated up some chicken breast, and fed it to the fox until it let me pet it. Then I went straight back to bed and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure what knowing would have gained me. Would it have given me any more peace than knowing what exactly went through the minds of the people who invaded our capitol last month would have? In all three cases I understand the setting, the narratives, the forces in play. I can comprehend the professed rationales, the nature of the individuals involved, and the typical habits thereof, but there are no simple answers.

I can stereotype and oversimplify. I can distill separate qualities and traits and wade through disparate points of view. I can answer the simpler surface queries and gain insight into deeper modes of thought. But what I cannot do is answer the deepest questions.

I know a not-unreasonable amount regarding the sport of basketball and the history and nature of the NBA, but I cannot tell you why the San Antonio Spurs played the way they did last night, and why they were unable to rise above it. For all my knowledge, such as it is, I know nothing of the realities of the professional grind, the inherent difficulties of a COVID-19-blighted season, or the delicate alchemy that binds and motivates professional teams in competition.

It’s possible that not a single San Antonio coach or player knows why last night happened either. Some things are anomalous, and do not yield themselves to further examination or experience. And some things that don’t quite belong flicker grey and copper in the corner of your vision as you pass.

I don’t know that my method of capture would have worked on an uninjured (or differently impaired) fox. A different scenario would likely have presented itself differently enough that what little I might have gleaned proved to be useless. Even the same scenario might have played itself out in a different way. I know no more about disease and injury in foxes than I did before. And after last night, I can safely say the same about the sport of basketball. The regular season in action is a wild animal that I have studied and loved from afar, and it has taught me absolutely nothing about the laws of variance.

Roughly two hours before last night’s game I drove through the gates of a wildlife rescue in Kendalia, Texas. The lone staff member on duty carried the covered plastic bin inside and transferred the fox to one of the hospital’s enclosures, leaving me with a one-sided information form to fill out. Minutes later she retrieved the form, thanked me, and handed me the bin and blanket back. I returned the thanks as she turned to go back inside. She smiled and closed the door behind her, leaving me standing alone in the parking lot with the remnants of a story.

I was given no potential explanation of the fox’s injuries or illnesses, and no promise of one to come. They have my phone number and my email scrawled on that spare white form, but I’m not counting on any further communication. It’s most likely that it would be bad news anyway and that contradicts the fable playing out in my head.

In any case, I had suspected that it might go that way once I arrived. The only thing that non-profits have less of than money is time, which is why I took the blanket off of the bin on my drive to the refuge. With its fur aglow and burnished by the distant lathe of a setting sun, I pet the fox the whole way there.

And I thought about it the whole way home.

Takeaways:

  • Not everything about this game was awful. DeMar DeRozan and Patty Mills were offensive positives and Jakob was the only big man who proved capable of blunting Memphis’s drives to the basket. But the shining performance of the night (on both ends) came from Keldon ‘Dumptruck’ Johnson as he flavored his usual bulldozing style with three makes from distance. Johnson was everywhere that everyone else wasn’t in this one, as he pulled down ten rebounds, threw in three assists (there would have been more if not for shooting lapses from other teammates), and added a block and a steal in for good measure. He’s got a bright future, that kid.
  • Devin Vassell on the other hand, got only twelve minutes to contribute. This was exacerbated by White’s struggles, but he gets a pass on this one due to extended layoff. Foot injuries are particularly detrimental since it’s hard to maintain conditioning when you’re not allowed to run. Sure, you can swim, but this is basketball, not water polo.
  • Ja Morant is just jaw-droppingly good, even coming off a lesser lower body injury of his own. If he ever develops a dependable three; look out, Western Conference. He’s just that good.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Rusalka, Op. 114, Act I: Song to the Moon - Performed by Lucia Popp