It was almost as if the NBA schedule-makers knew something special was going to happen on Thursday, a January night that featured a month low of only two games scheduled between two title-ready squads and two teams that — to varying degrees — are struggling to find their footing.
But the unexpected happened. Early. Late. And then very late. Victor Wembanyama and his Spurs‘ unit, that until Thursday night looked more like project than playoffs this season, did not back down against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the championship-minded Bucks in the first career battle between the faces of their respective franchises. (The late game saw the defending champion Nuggets down by 18 midway through the fourth quarter before closing the night on 24-5 run to , who, once again, find themselves searching for answers. With the game tied at 127, .)
Wembanyama, the top pick in last year’s draft, missed the Dec. 19 meeting in Milwaukee due to a leg injury, meaning that one of his birthday gifts was his first time squaring off against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. But the Spurs’ standout rookie, now 20, shined in a back-and-forth matchup with the former two-time league MVP. Tallying 27 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in the Spurs’ 125-121 loss, Wembanyama displayed all of the traits that have most observers thinking that it’s just a matter of time before there’s a changing of the guard.
Currently, the rookie phenom is dealing with some lingering ankle soreness that has limited his workload and will keep him out of back-to-back contests for the foreseeable future. Still, Wembanyama made the most of his 26 minutes played, including some ridiculous highlight-reel-worthy plays in the game’s final frame.
“Of course I can’t spend the whole game on the floor, but I felt like I made those minutes count,” Wembanyama said. “And we managed to keep me in enough minutes, so I could be on the court at the end.”
And make those minutes count he did. Let’s dive into all the drama that played out over the game’s final half.
To start, Wembanyama only had four points in each of the first two quarters, but came out of halftime firing. The Spurs won the third quarter 34-29, thanks in part to 13 points from the 7-foot-4 Frenchman. He drained an additional six points in the final frame to finish the second half with 19 points, four rebounds and four blocks.
Here’s a sampling of some of his otherworldly plays throughout the contest. He pulled off a behind-the-back dunk through contact, a self-alley-oop and blocked Antetokounmpo’s driving basket.
Wembanyama also poured in a clutch three-pointer in the game’s minute to tie things up at 121. That three-pointer came at the other end of a clutch block. Again, otherworldly.
“I’ve never seen anything like him,” Antetokounmpo said, when reflecting on his first encounter with Wembanyama.
Unfortunately, Wembanyama’s efforts fell just short. Antetokounmpo made a clutch basket to put the Bucks up 123-121, and despite Wembanyama’s block of him on another basket a few moments later, the Spurs were unable to tie the game again.
Antetokounmpo scored 14 points in the final frame to put the game away en route to an impressive double-double — 44 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists.
“[He’s] somebody I grew up watching and one of the greatest players in the world, so there’s always extra motivation,” Wembanyama said of his matchup with Antetokounmpo. “I’m a competitor, so I’m going to go at everyone and be the bad guy on the court. It was a great matchup.”
Great matchup is a nice way of putting it. The Spurs entered the contest with just five wins, but walked away with delivering one of the most entertaining games of the season.
Said Khris Middleton: “To see those two guys go at it, I don’t think the league has ever seen anything like that.”
And based off Wembanyama’s post-game comments, it sounds like fans can expect similar marquee games from here on out. When asked about any extra motivation following the announcement of All-Star ballots and Rookie of the Month winners, Wembanyama said, “Of course, of course. I’m dedicated and I know at the end of the day I’m going to get what I deserve, and every game is a statement from now on.”