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Antetokounmpo’s Bucks narrowly beat Spurs, spoil Victor Wembanyama’s birthday

The Spurs came close to beating one of the best teams in the league behind a fantastic Wembanyama performance, but Giannis Antetokounmpo had other ideas.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs, owner of the second-worst record in the league, and the Bucks, boasting the second-best record in the league, had one of the most exciting games of the season. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Wembanyama put on a show in a matchup that was closer than anyone could have imagined. Milwaukee prevailed, taking home a 125-121 win, but the score seemed almost irrelevant at times.

The amazing ending we ended up having didn’t seem in the cards early. It looked like the Bucks were going to make quick work of the new-look Spurs, as Khris Middleton was cooking on offense and the Spurs were settling for jumpers on the other end, with Wembanyama attempting four threes in the first four minutes. Slowly, however, the home team started to find its bearings. Tre Jones, who looked uneasy on his first game starting this season and didn’t get much responsibility in the opening moments, began to run the show and did a good job of it with Wemby resting. Then, the bench came in with fantastic energy. Blake Wesley, Dominick Barlow and Cedi Osman brought athleticism, defense and outside shooting, respectively to tilt the scales. The pace was high, the shots open and a zone effective, at least for a while. The Bucks found a couple of threes late to finish strong, but their lead was only seven after one.

The second unit still provided good minutes early in the second, but as soon as the stars took over, the entire feel of the game changed completely, something that would happen later on as well. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Wembanyama traded spectacular highlight plays in what turned into a sloppy but supremely entertaining stretch. As things settled, the Spurs created some turnovers which fed their transition attack, and got great bench minutes and a flurry from Devin Vassell that allowed them to trade buckets and stay close even when their defense struggled. The scoring was lower in the second period, as both team’s rim protector changed and blocked shots, but the Spurs looked effective enough to be on their way to a lead at the break. Unfortunately. the visitors once again close the frame well with a couple of threes to remain ahead by five after a thrilling first half.

Letting the Spurs stay close was a dangerous game for the Bucks, in the second game of a back-to-back, so it wasn’t surprising that they started the second half in attack mode. Lillard and Antetokounmpo drove to the rim to open up a double-digit lead in the first couple of minutes of the third, but Wembanyama responded. He scored 13 of the team’s first 18 points of the frame, and what was looking like a potential third-quarter collapse for San Antonio turned into a rare situation in which they outscored their opponents immediately after halftime. Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson took over on offense when Wembanyama and a very active and effective Jones rested and the Spurs closed the period well despite losing Barlow to injury. Heading into the final quarter, the score was tied and the stage was set for a great ending.

San Antonio struck first, hitting a couple of back-to-back threes, but the Bucks quickly responded by going to an effective zone and getting a few trips to the line by an aggressive Cameron Payne. Lillard made a few shots but so did Wembanyama on the other end. The Spurs went with a centerless lineup that struggled to protect the rim as they tried to buy Victor some time on the bench, and Cedi Osman made a couple of great defensive plays to help them survive while Vassell made jumpers. It was a great performance by the Silver and Black, who showed poise and focus that would have netted them the win against most foes. Unfortunately Giannis was their opponent and he refused to lose. With his team down three with three minutes to go, he hit back-to-back threes to give the Bucks the lead. Wemby sunk a long ball of his own, but Giannis then got an And-1. The Spurs had their chances to tie it but couldn’t and Milwaukee escaped with the win.

Game notes

  • Victor vs. Giannis was even better than anticipated. They both had plenty of highlights and big plays and their one-on-one duels were fantastic. Antetokounmpo finished with 44 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists while Wembanyama had 27 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in just a shade over 26 minutes. Just a fantastic matchup.
  • Tre Jones got the starting nod with Malaki Branham out, giving fans the opportunity they wanted to see a point guard next to Victor from tip-off. Jones exceeded expectations, finishing with 18 points and six assists while not hijacking possessions and playing within a system that does not always feature lead guards. Will Pop keep him as the starter? Who knows. But Tre made a case for himself.
  • There was a very important moment that exposed one of Jones’ biggest weaknesses, however. He had an open corner three to tie the game with two seconds left and couldn’t make it. The same happened 41 seconds earlier to Jeremy Sochan, who once again played every position and filled the stat sheet but struggled from outside. Finding the right balance between ball handling and shooting is a challenge for a Spurs team that lacks many well-rounded offensive players.
  • Devin Vassell played like a star. When the jumper is falling, he’s really hard to defend, and it was falling against the Bucks. The key for Vassell now is consistency. Scoring 34 points on 21 shots is impressive but getting buckets night after night when the team needs them is what the promising wing has to master next.
  • The bench was a huge plus for the Spurs. Wesley was a ball of energy, for better and for worse, and gave Pop the 15 minutes he needed to rest Jones. Barlow got a couple of blocks and hit some short jumpers that allowed San Antonio to survive the Wemby-less minutes in the first half. Cedi Osman was everywhere on defense, moved the ball well and regained his touch from outside. Keldon Johnson had some bad shot selection at times, but his role is much bigger than the others so he can get away with it. Other than Mamukelashvili, who got eaten alive in under three minutes out there against his old team, the second unit did its job.
  • Khris Middleton only played a half. Was Middleton’s absence and a tired Milwaukee team the reasons why the game was close? Maybe, but Spurs fans will take fun, competitive games whenever they can get them, so asterisks don’t matter.

Play of the night

Wemby to himself off the backboard is hard to beat, but let’s go with Victor going behind the back on the break and then dunking on Brook Lopez.

Next game: at Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday

The Spurs will have a couple of days off before traveling to Cleveland. The Wemby vs. Jarret Allen matchup should be a fun one.