Wemby Versus Giannis Could Not Have Been Any Cooler
9:45 AM EST on January 5, 2024
With apologies to Getty photographer Ronald Cortes, that photo up there, as a visual representation of Thursday night's kaiju clash, stinks. It stinks! This is no one's fault: You try to fit those two superhuman monstrosities into a horizontally oriented photograph that does not also include multiple area codes. Thankfully, with any luck, photographers both professional and amateur will have many, many chances. Thursday night's game was (please oh please oh please) the first of many.
Gregg Popovich has Victor Wembanyama on restricted duty. Wembanyama tweaked his right ankle warming up against the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 23, was forced to miss the game that night, and has had his minutes capped at 24 in every game since, a condition that Popovich says will continue until San Antonio's medical staff gives the all-clear. The Spurs might allow their superstar rookie to tip-toe beyond the 24-minute mark when circumstances call for it, but they will not be blowing past it; Wembanyama is too valuable to risk a delicate weakened joint for any particular regular-season contest, during what is shaping up to be a throwaway 20-win season. Also, for what it's worth, the Spurs are pretty obviously tanking.
This restriction set up a surprisingly stirring sequence in Thursday's home game against the Milwaukee Bucks. The dismal Spurs, losers of three in a row and holding the league's second-worst record and worst point differential, were making a contest of it. San Antonio hung around in the first half mostly as a consequence of the Bucks committing a bunch of live-ball turnovers and randos like Dominick Barlow connecting on a handful of unlikely scoring chances. Milwaukee, on the second leg of road back-to-backs, seemed to have the primary goal of getting in a good workout for Khris Middleton, who was slated to sit out the second half. Damian Lillard attempted just three shots through the first two quarters, and the Bucks in general seemed content to let Middleton get up some reps and wait for a bumbling Spurs squad to inevitably shoot their own dicks off.
NBA fans have been waiting to see Wembanyama and Giannis Antetokounmpo on the same floor. Antetokounmpo, who arrived in the league as another spindly, Gumbified foreign oddity, represents something like a realistic role model for a future Wembanyama that has had good injury luck, has developed steadily, has added some bulk, and is surrounded by professional-grade teammates. But Victor Wembanyama is a full five inches taller than Antetokounmpo; he is already better at blocking shots and making jumpers than Antetokounmpo has ever been. His skill level for a very large man is off the charts. Measured against Wembanyama's genuinely unprecedented potential in basketball, Antetokounmpo represents something like an acceptable floor. There's a best-case-scenario fully realized version of Wembanyama that makes this all-devouring version of Antetokounmpo look like an early beta test.
Even if that never quite happens, matchups between these two incredible behemoths should get better and better for quite some time. But with Wembanyama's concave teen chest and raw floor skills, and with his goofball teammates, and with that pesky minutes limit tamping down the possibilities, Thursday's inaugural head-to-head could've left a lot to the imagination. Every minute that the two shared the floor felt like something that was properly observed from no more than four inches away from your television, but every stretch that Wembanyama spent fidgeting on San Antonio's bench felt like it would inevitably be the moment that Antetokounmpo and the Bucks would simply be too serious for the Other Spurs, would race out to a big lead, and would make it easy for Popovich to bubble-wrap his rookie and empty his bench of its dregs for a non-competitive finish. Every time the Spurs survived for another Wemby sighting felt like a minor miracle.
Wembanyama, playing on his 20th birthday, was a factor in the early back-and-forth but not a very compelling one. He banked home an uncanny spinning layup over Brook Lopez in the first quarter but missed short on four open three-point attempts from basically the same spot on the floor, a worrying sequence where his form seemed to break down. For most of his first stint of action, Wembanyama looked like a spindly floor-spacer, and not a particularly threatening one. What the big teen needed was a damn dunk, an emphatic and cathartic highlight to get the blood flowing, something that he seemed to realize immediately after Antetokounmpo threw down a big highlight dunk of his own. On the subsequent possession, Wembanyama used a screen to engineer a switch near the right wing, made a reckless decision to pick up his dribble just inside the arc, and then salvaged the sequence with a ridiculous off-the-glass self-alley-oop. Two minutes later he swatted away what should've been an easy Bucks fast-break layup. Inside the final minute of the first half he brought the Spurs to within a bucket with a huge put-back dunk.
This seemed to get the juices going, not just for Wembanyama but for Antetokounmpo. The third quarter was a preposterous duel between a pair of gigantic superhuman phenoms, not unlike something you would see at the climax of a Godzilla movie. Antetokounmpo, now fully lathered up and out to destroy, dropped in a pair of gorgeous driving layups; Wembanyama responded by scoring directly over Brook Lopez and then picking off a pass near mid-court and pulling some incredible John Wall shit in the open court for an and-one dunk. With the Spurs down seven points and in need of a bucket the rookie threw a quick first-step at Lopez, beat him to the middle of the lane, and dropped home a slick scoop layup through contact for another and-one bucket. Seconds later he dribbled into a pull-up three-pointer from the top of the key. Antetokounmpo, suddenly fading out of the action, responded with a savage left-handed dunk directly through Wembanyama's armpit, and accentuated the bucket with a sneer and some flexing. This shit ruled insanely hard.
Giannis dunked over Wembanyama a second time a minute later. Affronted, Wembanyama finished the subsequent possession by wrong-footing Antetokounmpo with shockingly sharp off-ball movement and back-cutting him for a huge two-handed jam. Just as this was becoming insane and terrifying, that damn restriction kicked in, and Popovich moved Wembanyama to the pine.
Skipping ahead a little—I realize that I am now just giddily describing literally every single moment of this regular-season basketball game—Popovich once more pulled Wembanyama to the bench at about the eight-minute mark of the fourth quarter, with the score tied at 104 and San Antonio tantalizingly close to a showcase primetime victory over a real-deal title contender. This was the moment. Wembanyama was sitting on 23 points and playing out of his mind, but he'd also already used up 22 of his allotted 24 minutes of court-time. Reggie Miller and Kevin Harlan were fretting about the math: The Spurs, the Western Conference's worst team, would need to survive a solid four to six minutes of fourth-quarter basketball against a serious and veteran-laden contender in order for Wembanyama to have any real reason to return to the floor. Miller insisted that Popovich could afford to rest his rookie for no more than three minutes, in order for Wembanyama to have enough time to work himself back into the flow of the action and return to Total Hell Mode. Popovich, under absolutely no pressure to win the basketball game and mandated to protect the fragile ligaments of the sport's most precious talent, might reasonably have decided that any surge from the Bucks would signal the end of Wembanyama's night.
But those Other Spurs, God love 'em, scrambled and fought like hell to interrupt that calculation. Devin Vassell drilled a couple of heroic jumpers; spot-starter Tre Jones floated home a mid-ranger, and some clutch free-throw shooting actually had the Spurs out in front with four minutes left in regulation. This was when Popovich signaled down his bench and Wembanyama leapt up and strode toward the scorer's table, and I said "oh shit oh shit oh shit" right there in my living room.
This didn't end in a Spurs victory. Giannis made some incredible buckets down the stretch, including consecutive three-pointers to tie the game and then push the Bucks out ahead. Wembanyama followed with a three of his own, but Antetokounmpo responded with another big and-one dunk, setting up a final minute that featured what I consider to be the highlight of the game and the moment that I think subconsciously I have been waiting for from the first time I became aware of Victor Wembanyama as a human being. Antetokounmpo used a screen to force a switch onto Wembanyama, and then threw a dribble move and a shoulder at him to drive all the way to the restricted area. Against every other player in the NBA this move ends with Giannis throwing home a disgusting dunk to ice the game. Here it ended with Wembanyama, off-balance and moving backwards, reaching across the rim with his right hand to snuff out Antetokounmpo's shot.
Something like six of the coolest things that have happened all season so far happened in the second half of this basketball game. I haven't even described them all! I'm out of breath! My editors are physically restraining me! This game, between an all-business title-contender wrapping up a back-to-back and an entirely unserious bottom-dweller incentivized to rest and protect literally their one (1) good player, could've been anything, including nothing at all. Instead it was everything!