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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Magic

Odds, Elevators, and Directions

San Antonio Spurs v Orlando Magic Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

Human beings have such an odd relationship to reality. Last night, in the year of our Lord 2024, I watched an exhausted Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs get soundly dusted by an only slightly more experienced Orlando Magic team.

Devin Vassell’s noble stab at heroics notwithstanding, the game was all but won by the end of the 2nd quarter. Yes, there were still twenty-four minutes of game to play, but it couldn’t have been clearer at that point that this was not San Antonio’s night. The team had been without legs from the start of the opening frame and nothing short of a Galilean miracle seemed capable of restoring their best form.

In theory though, the chance remained. There remained the possibility of revival, of an inspirational speech from that ageing Serbian patriarchal figure, Greggory Charles Popovich, of a booming voice echoing the words “Come forth, Lazarus!” from beyond the tunnel (The Spurs do have a pending roster slot) and the young Spurs responding in kind.

That’s the thing about the theoretical though; it so often discounts the reality. Between the probable and the possible lies a chasm a thousand feet deep. Or, to paraphrase an inventor of the atomic bomb, chances were near zero.

But that’s the thing about human beings. We willingly discount reality. Sometimes this works in our favor, other times not so much. And there are few arenas in which we are so willing to discount the probable as the world of sports.

It’s hard to know just why we do this. Perhaps we do it for the thrill? For every 99 games in which defeat appears to be completely inevitable, we hold out for the one that confounds the odds.

Even the thrill itself can be called into question. Is it the thrill of victory over the opponent or over the odds themselves? Do we rejoice in the thinnest margins of a make-believe meritocracy, or is it simply a gesture of defiance against something older and far more intimidating? Do we use those moments to, as the late Cormac McCarthy once wrote, announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives?

Are we simply delusional? There’s certainly evidence pointing in that direction. Why else would we hang our hopes on long odds and lotteries? Why else would we tune in to watch loss after loss?

Growth. Development. Non-linear paths to exceptionality. These are all rationales that we content ourselves with. Mounds of picks to rest upon like slumbering dragons. So many possibilities!

I’m reminded of a scene near the end of the 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

With his victory secured and a factory to inherit, Charlie Bucket and his grandfather step into an elevator with Willy Wonka. Or rather, as Wonka quickly explains, a Wonkavator. Unlike most elevators limited to simple verticality, this one can go sideways, and slant-ways, and long-ways, and back-ways, and square-ways, and front-ways, and any other ways that little Charlie can think of.

It’s a concept that thrills, until one realizes that they’re still in an elevator.

In the end, Charlie pushes a button that launches the elevator into orbit. All of those directions and he still chooses up. Maybe there’s a metaphor in there somewhere. Personally, I’ve always found it amusing that Roald Dahl ran out of words to describe directions rather quickly.

The truth is that there aren’t actually that many directions to begin with, and that most of us ride in regular old elevators.

We step through the open doors and push a button for the desired floor. The doors shut, and we feel a movement, and we hope that we are going up.

Takeaways:

  • There’s been a lot written about Devin Vassell in this game, since he was one of the few redeeming highlights of the evening, but considering the shelling he’s taken on twitter/x this season because of his contract, it’s worth giving him his due. Vassell absolutely detonated in the 3rd quarter, scoring a scorching 23 points. That’s something Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and even Tim Duncan never accomplished in a Spurs uniform. That’s not just hot, that’s a ‘Now I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds’ atomic bomb level of hot. While inconsistency has plagued the Spurs this season, it’s definitely been overstated in the case of Vassell, who’s 2nd in 20 point games for the Spurs this year, and who has only scored less than 17 points once in the last 13 games. For my money, having a player on the roster who capable of scoring almost 25 points in a quarter, who’s not named Victor Wembanyama, seems like a huge win at the price that the Spurs paid for Vassell, especially on a 36/51/81 slash-line. It’s honestly scary to think what Vassell might be able to do with even a touch more consistency and another season with Wemby, and I cannot wait to see it.
  • It’s looking like the Spurs are going to let Malaki Branham try and shoot his way out of his prolonged funk, and honestly, it has not been pretty thus far. Branham is shooting a beyond dismal 37% over the last 10 games in 16 minutes per contest, and 23% from long-distance to boot. It might be time to give Sidy Cissoko those minutes, or even Sandro Mamukelashvili because Branham looks to need a lot of work somewhere out of the spotlight. Swapping Doug McDermott for Branham is looking like a shooting trade-off more disadvantageous to the Spurs than the Louisiana Purchase was to France.

Playing You Out – The Theme Song of the Evening:

Pain by The War On Drugs