Bucks39 Giannis Antetokounmpo wowed after first fight with Spurs39 Victor

Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo wowed after first fight with Spurs' Victor Wembanyama – ESPN

  • Bucks39 Giannis Antetokounmpo wowed after first fight with Spurs39 Victor.png&h=80&w=80&scale=crop

    Andrew Lopez, ESPN January 5, 2024, 12:44 a.m. ET

SAN ANTONIO – As Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo ran to the rim in the final minute of Thursday night's game against the San Antonio Spurs, he tried to create space against rookie center Victor Wembanyama and stood up, like he had done it so many times throughout his career.

But the result was anything but ordinary for Antetokounmpo. The long wingspan of Wembanyama, the No. 1 overall pick, knocked the ball away and gave the Spurs a chance against the team with the league's third-best record.

San Antonio's final shot, a corner 3-pointer by Tre Jones off a pass from Wembanyama, failed, and Milwaukee secured a 125-121 victory. But the talk after the game was about the battle between two players who are different from everyone else.

Antetokounmpo finished their first meeting with 44 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists in 39 minutes, while Wembanyama had 27 points, 9 rebounds and 5 blocks in 26 minutes.

Editor favorites

  • Bucks39 Giannis Antetokounmpo wowed after first fight with Spurs39 Victor.jpg&w=130&h=130&scale=crop&location=center

Both players had several highlights and fought each other until the end. In a thrilling sequence, Antetokounmpo threw multiple Spurs to the basket on one end, and Wembanyama responded with an alley-oop off the screen on the next possession.

“He’s special,” Antetokounmpo said. “He will be an extremely good player. He plays right. He plays to win. I’ve never seen anything like him.”

Wembanyama said Antetokounmpo was one of the players he watched most as a child and described him as one of the greatest players in the world.

“It’s always an extra motivation and I know I’m a competitor,” Wembanyama said. “So I want to take on everyone and be the bad guy on the pitch. So it was a great duel.”

The Spurs, who fell to 5-29 this season, fell behind by double digits early in the first quarter in what looked like it was shaping up to be another massive loss. But San Antonio quickly battled back in a game that saw eight lead changes and five ties in the fourth quarter alone.

But late in the fourth, Antetokounmpo took over.

Antetokounmpo defeated the Spurs 12:8 in the final period. The 12 clutch-time points were the second-most in a game of Antetokoumpo's career as the Bucks improved to 14-5 in clutch games, the most wins in the league.

Milwaukee also got 25 points, 10 assists and zero turnovers from Damian Lillard for the second straight night after losing a tough game to Indiana on Wednesday.

Bucks coach Adrian Griffin said it was a fun game to watch and practice with Antetokoumpo and Wembanyama in attendance.

“Two of the most unique and talented big men,” Griffin said. “That’s what I use [big-man term] easy because they are very versatile players. Man, that was fun. I thought Wemby was great, I thought Giannis was phenomenal.

Bucks forward Khris Middleton, who did not play in the second half, said he enjoyed watching Wembanyama's aggressiveness at the end of the game.

“To be competitive and not be afraid of the moment,” Middleton said. “In a close game, he's not afraid to take the shot and make a move or a pass or just take a chance, especially late in the game. You can tell he's not afraid of the moment. He loves the challenge. This will be big for him in the future.

Keldon Johnson, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Spurs, has watched Wembanyama make plays all year but called it “amazing” to see him and Antetokounmpo compete throughout the game.

“I think Vic did great,” Johnson said. “He had some great plays. Tonight, as always, he showed how he does it. But it’s a good feeling and it gets the competitive spirit going when you see them both doing their best.”

According to Second Spectrum, this is only the second time this season that Antetokounmpo has been blocked by a driving dunk. And the person who delivered that dunk was someone who has been watching Antetokounmpo from afar for a long time.

“I try to gain knowledge from as many great players like them,” Wembanyama said. “Giannis is one of the players I have watched the most. The way he uses his body makes 100% of what he can do with his body. This is something I look up to and still look up to. It's a player I know pretty well.

Despite the loss, Wembanyama said he could sense a performance against a team contending for a championship this season could propel San Antonio forward.

“It’s promising,” Wembanyama said. “That’s the first thing [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] told us we got back to the locker room. We had a few moments in the game where everything seemed to be working. And I could feel the crowd believing in us and going for it. Some of that was satisfying tonight.”