OKLAHOMA CITY — The Thunder rookie drove the lane and encountered the San Antonio big man.
Chet Holmgren vs. Victor Wembanyama?
The Thunder newbie in question was Vasilije Micic, and when he headed toward the basket early in the fourth quarter, he found Spurs center Zach Collins in his path. Collins knocked Micic to the court, and as Thunder tough guy Kenrich Williams rushed over to help up Micic, Williams put a hand in the middle of Collins’ back and pushed him out of the way.
And the scrap was on.
On a night Chet and Wemby squared off for the first time in the regular season, we thought we might see the dawn of a new rivalry. These two unique big men could be adversaries for years to come, after all.
And we may well have seen the start of a new rivalry, but it wasn’t Chet-Wemby.
It was Thunder-Spurs.
Though the final score wasn’t reminiscent of a rivalry cornerstone — Oklahoma City 123, San Antonio 87 — you got the feeling these two squads were trying to mark their territory, stake their claim, show their dominance. The franchises have battled for Western Conference supremacy before. Why couldn’t Tuesday have been the start of the second iteration of this rivalry?
“That’s a good question,” Thunder superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said when I asked him. “I have never thought about that.”
Rest assured, Shai, Thunder watchers have. We want to know with whom the Thunder is going to lock into great games. We are curious about which teams will be the rivals to the next iteration of great Thunder teams. It was Memphis and Golden State, San Antonio and Houston last time around.
San Antonio seems a good candidate to be near the top of the next rivalry rankings.
It starts with Chet and Wemby. Now, as we saw Tuesday, these two aren’t going to go mano a mano much. Even though they are similarly built — Chet is 7-foot-1, 195 pounds while Wemby is 7-foot-4, 210 pounds — the young giraffes didn’t guard each other much. Holmgren is more of a rim protector while Wembanyama rarely guards other big men.
But there were times they switched onto each other, and when they did, there was an audible buzz in Paycom Center.
Only a few minutes into the game, Wemby snagged a pass on the left wing and went around his back to shake free of Holmgren. Then, Wemby drove to the basket, sidestepped the waiting Jalen Williams and threw down a dunk.
It was an insane sequence for any player.
But for a guy who’s 7-4?
It’s almost unfathomable.
But for the most part, the Thunder defended Wemby well. OKC did it in a variety of ways.
On the Spurs’ second possession, Wemby caught the ball near the low block with Jalen Williams guarding him. The Santa Clara product is extremely talented, but he is nearly a foot shorter than Wemby.
Eleven inches to be exact.
But as Wembanyama started to make his move to the basket, Holmgren hustled over from the weak side to double team. Wemby was forced to pass out.
In other instances, the Thunder allowed one defender to hang with Wembanyama. Jalen Williams. Kenrich Williams. Even Holmgren on occasion. In the end, the Thunder held Wembanyama to eight points on 4-of-15 shooting and forced him into four turnovers, though he did grab 14 rebounds and block two shots
“We just wanted to try to make him play in a crowd,” SGA said. “We try to do so with most team’s best players, so it’s no different than that.”
Holmgren said, “I think it was a great team effort, really keying in on the game plan. … From the first to last guy that steps on the floor, we had a great effort.”
For Holmgren’s part, he didn’t have a big statistical night either: nine points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, one block.
But these two will be fun to watch for years to come.
So will these teams.
Now, the Thunder’s rebuild is way ahead of the Spurs’. OKC already has a legit superstar in Gilgeous-Alexander — the dude had a career-high seven steals to go with a game-high 28 points Tuesday — and a young core that includes Lu Dort, Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams and Holmgren. San Antonio has Wembanyama, but the supporting cast is harder to define. Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson, who didn’t play Tuesday, seem like nice pieces. Jeremy Sochan, too. But none of them are better than the core players in OKC.
Still, San Antonio has built championship teams before. It’s easy to see the Spurs doing the same again.
Ditto for the Thunder.
But for the Thunder’s part, the guys in the locker room say there’s little thought of what could become of a rivalry with the Spurs.
“We’re just so focused on us making strides every day and being better than we were yesterday that all that stuff,” Gilgeous-Alexander said, “I haven’t thought about that.”
Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said, “I just think we’re very respectful of the people, the players, the programs. … But we’re 0-0 the next time we play.”
Sure, but that kerfuffle between Zach Collins and Kenrich Williams is the kind of thing that gives games like Tuesday’s a carryover. It causes memories. It makes impressions. I mean, a few minutes after the dust-up when Sochan knocked down Holmgren, the Thunder string bean popped up off the floor looking like he was ready to swing on someone. Teammates had to restrain him, and Sochan was ultimately called for a flagrant-one foul.
A little bad blood never hurts a budding rivalry, even if it started with Micic and Collins instead of Chet and Wemby.