How Wembanyama outdueled Holmgren to snap OKC’s winning streak

How Wembanyama outdueled Holmgren to snap OKC’s winning streak

Hot shooting built the Spurs a lead Thursday against the Thunder, and Victor Wembanyama took over down the stretch to help them keep it. Takeaways from OKC’s first post-All-Star loss.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Mar 1, 2024, 5:58am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Mar 1, 2024, 5:58am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Victor Wembanyama wants some hardware. 

He said as much Thursday night in San Antonio, when in a news conference following his Spurs’ 132-118 win over the Thunder, he admitted the significance of winning NBA Rookie of the Year. 

“It’s very important for me…,” Wembanyama told reporters after the game. “I am who I am, and I’m in (an) organization that trusts me. I’m convinced that the best way for me to help by team is by also individually performing (for) the whole season. So, yes, individual awards like Rookie of the Year are very important for me.” 

But well before he answered, he’d made a statement. 

The 7-foot-4 rookie had 28 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, five blocked shots and two steals as the Spurs snapped the Thunder’s six-game winning streak and ended their own five-game losing skid. 

On a night when the Thunder’s Chet Holmgren — Wembanyama’s only competition for the top rookie award — was good, the Spurs center was better. 

Holmgren finished with strong all-around numbers: 23 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a block. 

But after winning two previous meetings with the Spurs this season by an average of 31 points, the Thunder couldn’t get string together stops and couldn’t slow Wembanyama late. 

Wembanyama had eight points, three rebounds, three assists and two blocks in the fourth quarter alone, including a highlight-reel swat of a Holmgren jump shot as the Spurs put away the game. 

It was the Spurs’ first home game since Feb. 3 — the annual San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo necessitates a long road trip every season — and they gave their fans reason to celebrate. 

The Thunder (41-18) had outscored the Spurs (12-48) in all eight quarters of the teams’ first two meetings this season. OKC managed it only once Thursday, a 32-29 edge in the third. 

The game was tied 107-107 with 7:33 to play, and San Antonio outscored the Thunder 25-11 the rest of the way. Wembanyama scored six of those 25 points and assisted on seven. 

It was a Rookie of the Year finish, and though Wembanyama told reporters after the game that the race isn’t over, he’s become a heavy favorite to win the award, his numbers separating him from Holmgren even as the OKC rookie’s team piles up wins. 

Afterward, Wembanyama basked in the moment. He took the mic from a sideline reporter and addressed the crowd before leading it in a chant of “Go Spurs Go.” 

“I missed this s***,” he said. “I love it. I missed it.” 

More takeaways from the Thunder’s loss:

Thunder defense rests

As good as Wembanyama was, he had plenty of help. 

Jeremy Sochan scored 10 of his 21 points and Devin Vassell 11 of his 28 in the fourth quarter. Six Spurs scored in double figures, and San Antonio shot 52.7% from the floor in the game, making 12 of 20 shots in the fourth quarter. 

The Spurs made 19 of 39 3-pointers in the game, the third-highest long-range percentage by a Thunder opponent this season, and tied for the second-most makes.  

The game was tied 37-37 after one quarter, notably close given that OKC ranks third in the NBA in offensive rating at 119.4 points per 100 possessions and San Antonio 27th at 109.4. 

“I thought they did a really good job from the jump of dictating the pace and physicality and got themselves into a rhythm that was hard to turn off on the defensive end of the floor,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “That was kind of an uncharacteristic start for us defensively, and then credit them. I thought we tried to turn it on defensively, but they were really really sharp tonight. They were the better team.”

The Thunder closed the third quarter on a 14-4 run to pull within two points, then took a lead early in the fourth but couldn’t sustain it. There were too may defensive breakdowns and the Spurs were in too good a flow. 

Daigneault said his team “seemed to be behind a lot of plays from a pace standpoint,” and that the Spurs “went and got that game” after OKC took the lead. 

“I’d say (San Antonio’s) shotmaking is a big part of it,” Holmgren said. “But what leads to that is us having to be better on the defensive end. Making certain shots tougher on them, taking certain things away. We just got to be better.”

A matter of minutes

Daigneault against the Spurs continued to tinker with his post-trade-deadline rotations. 

On a night when the Thunder’s Big Three was mostly solid and in stretches spectacular — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 31 points and Jalen Williams 26 in addition to Holmgren’s 23 — OKC needed a spark from somewhere else in the lineup. 

The Thunder still is working a rusty Gordon Hayward into the lineup. He missed all three of his shots against the Spurs and is 5 for 20 from the floor with OKC. 

That’s understandable for a player who went almost two months between games after suffering a calf injury on Dec. 26 with Charlotte and adapting to new surroundings and a new system after a trade-deadline deal brought him to OKC. 

Hayward logged 12 minutes Thursday, his fifth game with OKC. That matched his lowest number with the Thunder. 

But there were other tweaks, too. 

Isaiah Joe played 25 minutes off the bench, six more than starter Josh Giddey. Since the All-Star break, Giddey is averaging 21.2 minutes to Joe’s 19. 

Giddey had two points on 1-for-5 shooting against the Spurs. Since the All-Star break, he’s shooting 17 of 39 (43.6%) from the floor and 3 for 11 (27.3%) from the 3-point line. 

Joe had 15 points Thursday, making 5 of 8 shots, including 4 of 7 3-pointers. 

But both players struggled at times defensively — most of the team did — and the Spurs outscored the Thunder by a point with Joe on the floor and by 10 in Giddey’s minutes. 

The road ahead

The Thunder was a double-digit favorite Thursday, and though there’s never a good time to lose a game you’re supposed to win, the timing of the loss in San Antonio was particularly rough. 

The team was scheduled to return to OKC late Thursday night, then hits the road again Saturday for a three-game road trip that gets off to a challenging start. 

The Thunder plays at Phoenix on Sunday and at the Lakers on Monday, and though it has beaten the Suns once on the road, it’s 1-2 this season against the Lakers. 

The Suns and Lakers are a combined 40-20 this season at home. 

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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