Chet-Wemby II: Wembanyama puts up numbers, but Holmgren, OKC win big

Chet-Wemby II: Wembanyama puts up numbers, but Holmgren, OKC win big

In the battle of the NBA’s best rookies, Victor Wembanyama got the better of Chet Holmgren statistically, but the Thunder provided a reminder of how much help Holmgren has in a 140-114 blowout.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 25, 2024, 7:42am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 25, 2024, 7:42am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Mark Daigneault had a little smile on his face (or maybe it was a smirk) as he fielded a question Wednesday he had no intention of answering. 

It was a reasonable one from ESPN sideline reporter Andraya Carter, who wanted to know what had worked for Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren in the first quarter of his matchup with the Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama, Holmgren’s top competition for NBA Rookie of the Year. 

But Daigneault hasn’t played into the comparison this season. He wasn’t about to start Tuesday in San Antonio. 

And so, just down the sideline from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — known for being quick and sometimes cantankerous during in-game interviews — Daigneault grinned but didn’t bear it. 

“It’s Thunder vs. Spurs tonight,” he said. 

In a microcosm of their Rookie of the Year candidacies, Wembanyama got the better of Holmgren statistically. But the Thunder’s rookie center had another efficient night, pitching in on a 140-114 win by his wildly superior team. 

Holmgren finished with 17 points, nine rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and a steal to Wembanyama’s 24, 12, four, four and one. 

They guarded each other some and put on the sort of show ESPN had to have hoped for from Chet-Wemby II after their first meeting — a TNT-televised 123-87 Thunder win on Nov. 14 in Oklahoma City  — ended with the two combining for 17 points on 7-for-25 shooting. 

Holmgren and Wembanyama had some energy Tuesday — and some emotion, particularly in their early fourth-quarter minutes, when Holmgren scored nine points on 4-of-6 shooting and Wembanayama responded with six on 3 of 5. 

But the matchup did nothing so much as underscore their vastly different circumstances. 

The Spurs (8-36) rely so much on Wembanyama, a game-changer at both ends of the floor who’s asked to carry a bigger offensive load than Holmgren. OKC keyed on him defensively. 

“I thought we did a good job of being physical with him,” Daigneault told reporters in San Antonio. “We put him in a crowd, we turned him over a couple times. I thought that we made the game difficult. He didn’t really operate in free space a ton. And that was key because they’re really trying to pump the ball to him and play through him.”

The Thunder (31-13) has so many more offensive options, starting at the top with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, an MVP candidate who finished Tuesday with 32 points, six rebounds and 10 assists in 30 minutes, resting for the fourth quarter of a rout. 

Four Thunder players besides Gilgeous-Alexander and Holmgren scored in double figures: starters Jalen Williams (13 points) and Josh Giddey (12) and reserves Aaron Wiggins (22) and Cason Wallace (13). 

OKC hit its season high in points on the strength of a 56.2% shooting night that included hitting 18 of 40 3-pointers.

It led by as many as 32 points. The Spurs’ largest lead was two, and the Thunder led for the final 39 minutes and 45 seconds of the game. 

Wembanyama got numbers, and individual excellence is his strongest case to win the NBA’s top rookie award as he puts some statistical distance between himself and Holmgren. 

Voters who favor Holmgren likely will cite his contributions to winning games. 

He’s stressed all season that’s his priority. And though Holmgren conceded Tuesday that it’s “human nature” for the Wembanyama matchup to creep into his thoughts, he does his best to hold them at bay. 

“To really be uncommon and not just do what everybody else does, you have to kind of fight that,” Holmgren said. “And obviously, that’s the headline that you guys have. That’s what ESPN is promoting; that’s what the NBA is promoting, and rightfully so. Vic’s a great player. I think I have a long way to go in this league, but I plan to be a great player and play a long time. But that doesn’t take away from what the focus is, and the focus is Thunder vs. Spurs.”

More takeaways from the Thunder’s win:

The second time’s a charm

The Thunder struggled Tuesday at home to overcome a bad-but-plucky Portland team that took it down to the wire before Williams’ go-ahead bucket with 10 seconds to play. 

So OKC traveled to San Antonio with fresh lessons in tow. 

“We last game didn’t have our best offensive outing,” Gilgeous-Alexander. “We weren’t really satisfied with the way we played offensively. We wanted to come out here and correct it, and we did a good job of that.”

To that point: The Thunder hit 11 of 22 3-pointers in the first half against the Spurs after making four — and attempting only 11 — in the first half against the Blazers. 

A night after the Blazers outscored the Thunder 15-13 on the fast break, OKC beat the Spurs 20-13 in that category. And OKC had 36 assists against San Antonio, 13 more than against Portland. 

“I really liked how much we trusted each other,” Holmgren said. “That ball was really moving around, especially out there in that second unit. Everybody trusted that when they get off the ball it’s gonna come right back if they moved and got open and trusted the offense, and we did a great job of that for all 48 minutes. Whoever was out there on the floor, all five guys trusted each other.”

Winning Wiggins

Thunder guard Isaiah Joe has said that in the offseason, he trains to prepare for coming in cold off the bench ready to shoot. 

Aaron Wiggins doesn’t have any such regimen. So he does the best prep he can from his seat on the bench. 

“I have the massage gun sometimes, and I’ll be massaging my calves and my quads just (so) when it’s time for me to go, I have my legs under me and I feel good,” Wiggins told reporters Tuesday. “But I’m gonna ask Zay what he does, because I’m really curious to know now.”

Whatever Wiggins is doing is working. Especially this week. 

He scored a season-high 22 points against the Spurs a night after giving OKC 13 off the bench against Portland. Those were his sixth and seventh double-digit scoring games of the season. 

Against the Spurs, he made 9 of 11 shots, including 4 of 6 3-pointers, containing the best shooting season of his career.  

In 12.8 minutes per game, Wiggins is shooting 60.5% on 2.2 field-goal attempts and 53.3% on 1.1 shots from 3-point range. 

But even if shots don’t drop, the 6-foot-6 Wiggins can be a valuable piece off the bench. He’s a good ball mover, and his aggressive cuts to the basket are a strong counter when aggressive defenders play tight on the Thunder’s stars. 

“He basically is like a Swiss Army knife,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “You can throw him in any situation and he has something for it. If we need energy, he comes in and offensive rebounds, runs the floor. We need defense, he comes in to defend. We need spot shooting, he’ll come in and make some 3’s. He’s always ready to play and he does whatever it takes.”

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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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