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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Pelicans

If a tree falls...

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

“If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody is around to hear it, and it hits a mime, does anybody care?”

That I zone out during certain losses is hardly news. I’ve written about it before.

Covering as many Spurs games as I do during the season (in addition to the ones I watch in a non-staff capacity) can lead to this sort of thing during the course of even the most normal of seasons. I sincerely doubt I’m the only person covering the Spurs in any capacity that has these moments, but last night served as a sort of dubious hallmark for me personally.

Normally, in the course of monitoring a defeat of the sort I witnessed yesterday evening, it takes me at least the entire length of the first half to begin to zone out. Last night I was done by the end of the first quarter.

It’s an interesting thing, zoning out. I’m still dimly aware of everything that’s transpiring, and I can be pulled back to full attention by something impressive, but it’s a mostly detached state in which I can begin brainstorming while still observing the progress of the game.

I’ve come to believe that it’s an important skill when covering a sporting contest. I can’t just turn the TV off, I’ve got to write about this monstrosity later. I need to know what happened.

But it feels warm, and remote, and most of all, surreal. I didn’t zone out as much in the past, for the sheer mathematical reason that there simply weren’t as many games to zone out in when the Spurs were winning.

A nineteen win season leaves an awful lot of room for brainstorming though. Most often the question I have to ask myself lately, is how am I going to characterize this loss?

Is it a bad loss? Is it a good loss? Is it a developmental triumph? Is it an indictment of the coaching staff and front office? Is it a tribute to cooler heads and models of probability?

After 30-40 losses you start to strain a bit for narrative. 53 losses is a lot of ways to lose. I think even Dr. Seuss would struggle at codifying such a wide variety of drubbings; 1 loss, 2 loss, red loss, blue loss. There’s probably a whole children’s book there if I really put my mind to it.

And to be clear, it’s not the losing that’s causing me to lose my mind. Yeah, I don’t love it, but who does? If losing were the soup du jour of the sporting world no one would partake.

It’s the way that the Spurs are losing; with a brazenness I once thought was exclusively reserved for the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Sam Presti’s internet legion of zero-sum acolytes.

Earlier this season I was taken to task for insinuating that San Antonio’s injury reports might not be on the level, but benching almost all of your primary contributors in the wake of a rare victory sows much more than the seeds of doubt. I certainly feel no such need to tiptoe around the issue any longer.

There’s no use complaining, you might say, and you’d be right. The course of the season has been invariably chosen. The San Antonio Spurs, analytics darlings for so many years, have finally lain their crown at the feet of the almighty percentile.

But you see, complaints are the perseverance of passion, and passion, for all its supposed boundlessness, is not in fact a wellspring ever-flowing; something many a divorce lawyer can give testimony to.

I never worry about the Spurs losing. Teams lose, and then some shining day they lose much less. I just wonder about all the in-between. All relationships endure losing seasons, but the reasons for survival vary less. Losing and winning are variance eternal, setting and rising with the permanence of suns. Feeling is fleeting.

Which is probably how I ended up thinking about Gary Larsen’s Far Side paraphrasing of George Berkeley’s long-standing thought experiment: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

In the world of quantum mechanics this is a legitimate question. Titans of the physics world, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr wrestled with the concept for most of their careers, with Einstein once inquiring of the gifted particle physicist Abraham Pais: “Do you really believe that the moon only exists if you look at it?”

Pais responded that there was no definitive answer to the question.

And yet, I think it may have been a surrealist cartoonist of the mid 1980’s who answered that point of inquiry best, with a question of his own that revolved paradoxically and sarcastically around the concept of concern.

Last night the Spurs were a tree falling in the forest. They did their level-best to maintain their odds. Did anybody care?


  • That being said, there are always developments to be noticed in the course of any loss. Even in a season where it would be easier to ascertain the legitimacy of player and coaching efforts, Sandro Mamukelashvili would not have gone unnoticed. Mamu, as he’s most fondly referred to by Spurs fans (and writers trying to avoid carpal tunnel) has been a difference-maker since the Spurs picked him up off of waivers three weeks ago, living up to his billing as a stretch big to the tune of 8/6/2 line while shooting 40% from three, all in just twenty minutes a game. With Jakob Poeltl’s exit to the Raptors occurring at the trade deadline, the Spurs needed to find a frontcourt player who could be more effective in backup minutes than the increasingly creaky Gorgui Dieng, and the appear to have once again pulled an important contributor off of the scrap heap in classic PATFO style. While Mamu was certainly overmatched against the lengthily lethal Brandon Ingram, he’s certainly earned another look next season from the front-office in place of Dieng, particularly if the lottery balls aren’t kind to the Silver and Black this offseason. His ability to stretch the floor, move without the ball, as well as do all of the dirty work Spurs bigs are frequently famous for bodes well and was on display against a Pelicans team that made the mistake of not taking him seriously early.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

The Trees by Rush