OKLAHOMA CITY — They didn’t guard each other but they didn’t have to be in each other’s airspace the whole night — each knew where the other was, almost at all times.
“Skinny Bowl I” was highly anticipated everywhere except for the two franchises that have more similarities than differences, the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, and their hyped-but-worth-it rookies, Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren, didn’t exactly light up the night in their first official matchup against one another.
The final tally in Oklahoma City’s 123-87 win at Paycom Center didn’t read like two future Hall of Famers: Seven points, 11 rebounds, seven assists for one, and 14 points, six rebounds and two assists for the other.
Wait, those were the stats for LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in their first tilt, some 20 years ago in Cleveland. The two rookies who were about to embark on a star-studded journey, barnstorming across the NBA and international gyms, began with a dud.
So yes, this was somewhat predictable even if the Wembanyama-Holmgren preseason matchup produced fireworks. Holmgren finished with nine points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block in 30 minutes. Wembanyama had a couple more highlights but had a dull night of his own, with eight points, 14 rebounds, two assists and two blocks (one on Holmgren).
There’s a rivalry that predates this NBA stuff and it’ll be refreshing to see mature as both guys grow — they just seemed to get the memo from their buttoned-up organizations that the stage of national TV and an in-season tournament game wouldn’t add any extra juice, even if the crowd was juiced for a one-on-one matchup.
The most they’ll speak about the other now is the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in Latvia in 2021, their first matchup. It wasn’t quite looking in a mirror for either, but it was probably one of the first times they could look someone in the eye without looking down.
“It’s something I keep in my mind. I remember being part of a great, great team,” Wembanyama said. “It was a real pleasure playing. Tough, tough stuff, but great experience.”
Holmgren: “A great matchup, USA and France. A lot of great players in that game. It came down to the wire, we were able to edge out a win.”
Earlier in the day, Holmgren shut down any talk of a potential rivalry — somewhat.
“I’m not too focused on the next 15 years,” Holmgren said. “I’m focused on helping the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Spurs tonight. And that’s what we as a team are focused on.”
Perhaps it was a Freudian slip because he wasn’t asked about the next decade and a half, or maybe he’s programmed himself not to let anything slip about an opponent and a team he’ll have to see — not even a compliment.
But there was heat in the air. The crowd cheered when it appeared the two would go one-on-one, and unleashed some thunderous “MVP” chants — for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That speaks to the stages of development, where each franchise is relative to the other.
It would seem like they’re on similar trajectories, and perhaps they are. The starting points are disparate, though, and it’s reflected in the tall, slim men. The Thunder don’t have to force-feed Holmgren because of the talent around him — Gilgeous-Alexander made All-NBA First Team last season and Jalen Williams is another Sam Presti draft find, growing very much at his own pace.
Holmgren plays center and his constant movement keeps lanes open for the Thunder drivers and shooters. He’s not exactly a decoy, but he won’t be fully deployed anytime soon. There’s no need to speed up a process that’s been years in the making for Oklahoma City.
The Spurs can’t force Wembanyama the ball even if they wanted to, considering they don’t have anything resembling a starting point guard on the roster and have a decent share of guys with a “get mine” mentality.
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But it doesn’t seem like they’re in a rush to remake the roster in order to compete for the now — part of the blowout was facilitated by the fact Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson were out with injuries.
That’s nearly 35 points on the bench and eyeballs that could divert attention away from Wembanyama so everything doesn’t have to be a struggle. The Spurs had 19 live-ball turnovers and the Thunder took easy advantage, with Gilgeous-Alexander having seven steals on his way to an efficient 28 points with six rebounds and five assists.
Even though Wembanyama does things to make you think he’ll be an All-Defensive player now and a bona fide All-Star this February as opposed to the near, near future, the Spurs are still slow-walking this.
“We’re in [the] observation phase right now,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said before the game. “And he’s doing some things that are really special. He’s doing other things that I don’t want him to do. But I’m gonna say very little to him now because I need to learn where he feels most comfortable. Where does he have the best impact both defensively and offensively?”
The Thunder feel the same about their tall man. There’s an undeniable tendency, a temptation to overreact to every revelation, every improvement, every software update absorbed by these two.
“Oh, he can pass out of double-teams? Let’s make him a hub!”
“He can score off the bounce now? Let’s make sure he gets it on the move!”
Instead, it’s more deliberate. Not robotic but neither will be seduced by the promise of a quick fix.
The Thunder have amassed so many draft picks, it would make you feel they’re pulling off a Ponzi scheme in plain sight. But they develop and have made opportunistic trades — and you’ve yet to hear any departing player say a bad word about the city, thus making it easier for incoming players to be optimistic about the organization and environment.
Holmgren seems to fit right in where he is, as does Wembanyama in San Antonio.
They both do things that will take your breath away, even if it results in nothing on the stat sheet. And they also do things that make you hold your breath, when they hit the ground hard and awkwardly, frequently — but every time, they shake the cobwebs off and go back for more.
Holmgren absorbed a flagrant foul from Jeremy Sochan in the second half when the game was out of hand, and popped up ready to tangle. Having been skinny his whole life, he knows he can’t afford to let a sting last too long.
Show no weakness, especially against the bigger, thicker types.
“Let’s just say they’re both real relatively vulnerable to this when we look at their bodies,” Popovich said before the game. “They believe it’s very physical, a lot of strong people because this means anything they are wired strong. It’s not like they’re skinny and frail and weak.”
They’ll battle far more, even this season, under different circumstances and a different level of attention.
Even still, neither will give an inch, before, during or after.