Slender silhouette, deterrence, ability to shoot from afar... Between Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren, there is no shortage of points in common. The Frenchman is a bit taller (2.24m versus 2.16) and younger (19 years versus 21), more mobile and endowed with greater dribbling skills than his American rival, but the two giants have had equivalent statistics since the start of the season, with more scoring for “Wemby” and more skill to be credited to Holmgren. In short, two phenomena who are discovering the NBA. And their first duel was therefore enough to arouse curiosity last night, at the Paycom Center in Oklahoma City and on TNT. A regular season and NBA Cup duel won comfortably and without suspense in the second half by OKC against San Antonio (123-87). Defenseless and deprived of Keldon Johnson and Tre Jones, the Spurs (3v-8d) remain on six consecutive losses. Second success in a row for the Thunder (7v-4d).
If all eyes were initially and quite logically turned towards the Wembanyama/Holmgren duel, the first in a competitive match since the final of the U19 World Cup won by Team USA against the Bleuets, in 2021, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made shadow to everyone. MVP of the day. 28 points on 10/16 shots, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 7 interceptions for the Canadian from OKC, executioner of the France team last summer, in Jakarta, during the World Cup. His Australian companion Josh Giddey (18 pts, 7 pds) also shone, while Holmgren, clumsy from afar (1/5), had 9 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 interceptions and 1 block. Small stat line but no need to push for him. Clumsy (4/15, including 0/3 at 3 pts), guilty of 4 turnovers and annoyed at times, also not well served, Wembanyama finished with 8 points (his lowest total in the NBA), 14 rebounds (record personnel), 2 assists and 2 blocks. Neither of the two contenders for the Rookie of the Year title scored a point this time.
Crazy start to the match between the two youngest teams in the Association, with little skill, few systems recited. The opportunity to capture rebound after rebound for Wembanyama (6 in 5 minutes), who got into his match well, including a big dunk, deterrence and a tap. The native of Chesnay only played the first five minutes before following the rest of a first quarter in the form of a crossover on the bench. “SGA” had already scored 10 points after 12 minutes (28-25). It was harder on the restart for Wembanyama, a failure from distance, another from close range and a loss of ball. Holmgren, for his part, made the three-pointers speak (36-28) but did not convert his shot during his first real face-to-face with the Frenchman.
Up close or at mid-distance, “Wemby” helped his team stay alive (39-37) before taking a technical for showing his displeasure by bouncing the ball on the ground. The referees are (very) finicky about this... For the rest, Gregg Popovich's men briefly took the lead (45-48) before... paying dearly for their mistakes with the ball (12 ball losses in the 1st MT) and in defense against Giddey, Holmgren and “SGA”. OKC went 13-0 before the break (58-48 MT), which had the gift of irritating Wembanyama.
Which Wembanyama started the second act with... an annoying foul on Holmgren, before another on the rebound, and several failures on shots, contested or not. The Thunder's aggressive defense also hurt the Alamo City club, which fell into nonsense and took a big blow (64-48, then 73-50). Texas mush. Youth is not an excuse for everything... Hazardous choice, Swiss cheese defense, Wembanyama not looking hard enough: nothing was going right for the Spurs, who had up to 28 points spent in the third quarter and were trailing 91-66 at the start of the fourth. Solo rider of Mark Daigneault's men, strong in defense and led by a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as talented as he is exemplary, like this high altitude interception in front of Victor Wembanyama. Symbol. Still this palpable annoyance at “Wemby”, who railed at the referees after a counter from Chet Holmgren, while the tone rose very loudly between Kenrich Williams of OKC and Zack Collins of the Spurs. Tense.
For the rest, the fate of the meeting had been sealed for a while. Wembanyama, who was annoyed at not being served, was not helped by his teammates. In addition, he gave the stick to be beaten, like this whimsical dribble which resulted in another loss of ball. The number 1 in the 2023 Draft still had the opportunity to counter Holmgren, number 2 in the 2022 Draft, who was getting confused with Jeremy Sochan. He also grabbed two rebounds to establish a new personal record in this area and made a final three points... which was not awarded before being called back to the bench 5'12 from the final buzzer. OKC was up to 40 points ahead, taking advantage of 25 turnovers (!) and the small percentage of skill of the Texan visitors (38.7%) to take a stroll this Tuesday (123-87 final score).
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To be continued for “Wemby” and his comrades, a few days of rest before attacking a series of four matches at home, including a “back-to-back” (two matches in two days) against Sacramento (Friday night in Saturday, 1:30 a.m.) and Memphis (night from Saturday to Sunday, 2 a.m.), then two matches against the L.A. Clippers who are looking for each other – an understatement – since the James Harden trade (night from Monday to Tuesday and from Wednesday to Thursday, 2h). As for the next duel between Victor Wembanyama, we will have to wait until the night of January 24 to 25, 2024 (2:30 a.m.), this time in San Antonio.