SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The first battle between Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and San Antonio Spurs rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama exceeded the hype.
Antetokounmpo had 44 points and 14 rebounds and Milwaukee overcame an electric performance by Wembanyama on his 20th birthday to beat San Antonio 125-121 on Thursday night.
Wembanyama had 27 points, and Devin Vassell led the Spurs with 34.
“That was a fun game,” Milwaukee coach Adrian Griffin said. “That was a fun game to coach, a fun game to watch. Two of the most unique, talented big men. I use that (big-man term) loosely because they are very versatile players. Man, that was fun. I thought Wemby was great, I thought Giannis was phenomenal.”
Wembanyama’s first meeting with Antetokounmpo was delayed by the French rookie’s sprained ankle Dec. 19 in Milwaukee, but it proved to be worth the wait.
“He’s an unbelievable talent,” Antetokounmpo said. “Can score any time he wants. Plays the right way. Plays to win. It was great playing against him.”
The 7-footers dueled in the final minutes with both hitting clutch 3-pointers and making critical plays defensively.
Antetokounmpo drew a charge on Wembanyama after hitting a 3-pointer for a tie at 118 with three minutes remaining. The Greek star hit his second 3-pointer of the game 34 seconds later to give the Bucks a 121-118 lead.
Wembanyama responded by blocking Damian Lillard’s layup and making a 3-pointer to tie it with 53 seconds left.
“I love to see that from young guys,” Milwaukee Khris Middleton said. “To be competing, not scared of the moment. Not scared of taking the shot and making a move or making a pass or just taking a chance in a close game, especially late in the game. You can tell that he’s not scared of the moment. He loves the challenge. That’s going to be big for him going forward.”
Wembanyama blocked an attempted dunk by Antetokounmpo to set up a potential tying shot. Wembanyama passed up a contested 3-pointer to give the ball to Tre Jones, but the guard missed a 3-pointer from the right corner.
Lillard finished with 25 points and 10 assists.
Wembanyama said Antetokounmpo is one of the players he has studied the most because the 7-footer from Greece is aggressive and “scary for his opponents.”
“I’m a competitor, so I want to go at everyone and be the bad guy on the court,” Wembanyama said. “It was a great matchup.”
Wembanyama dispensed his own dread to the Bucks.
Wembanyama had nine rebounds, five blocks, altered numerous shots and was 10 from 18 from the field.
Wembanyama electrified the crowd by throwing the ball off the backboard to himself for a two-handed dunk early in the second quarter. A few minutes later, he recovered defensively to block Portis’ short jumper after forcing Antetokounmpo to give up the ball near the rim.
In the opening minutes of the third quarter, Wembanyama picked up a loose ball, drove to the rim, passed the ball around his back to avoid Lillard and threw down a one-handed dunk over Brook Lopez.
His energy spread to his teammates, who put together their most complete game in what has been a dismal season.
“Just the fact we can compete with a championship level team like this, it’s promising,” Wembanyama said.
Bucks: At Houston on Saturday night.
Spurs: At Cleveland on Sunday.