Giannis and Wembanyama go head-to-head, Bucks defeat Spurs, 125-121
SAN ANTONIO — The Milwaukee Bucks turned to their two superstars in crunch time and avoided their third straight loss with a thrilling 125-121 victory over the San Antonio Spurs Thursday night at the Frost Bank Center.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 14 of his game-high 44 in the fourth quarter and Damian Lillard scored 11 of his 25 in the final frame as the Bucks held off a charge by rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama and his team.
Milwaukee (25-10) avoided a three-game losing streak in a hard-fought victory where they couldn’t put the Spurs away after building double digit leads in the first and second halves. San Antonio fell to 5-29 in losing their fourth in a row.
Khris Middleton (12) and Malik Beasley (10) were the only other Bucks to reach double figures.
“I think tonight in the second half it’s like alright, this game is close, we didn’t run anything deep – it was just me and Giannis a lot,” Lillard said of the decisive fourth quarter. “He was attacking, I was attacking, we were in a lot of actions together.
“They had to put two on the ball when I was coming off pick-and-rolls and I was hitting him coming down the middle. Like, it’s hard to stop him coming downhill when the defense is still moving. Coming off all screens they gotta work about Brook (Lopez) in the corner and ‘Beas’ on the wing and then having their big up the floor instead of sitting in the paint waiting for him.
It was just one of those games where it was just simplified. It was just me and Giannis going to work.”
Devin Vassell led Spurs with 34 points while Wembanyama added 27 in 26 minutes. Tre Jones (18), Keldon Johnson (14) and Cedi Osman (13) also reached double figures for San Antonio.
BOX SCORE: Bucks 125, Spurs 121
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Wembanyama go head-to-head
The first matchup between two of the NBA’s transcendent stars lived up to the hype.
Antetokounmpo scored 44 points, including 12 of his team’s final 13 points and Spurs rookie phenom Victor Wembanyama finished with 27 points and five blocks, including a highlight-reel swat of Antetokounmpo trying to fly in for a dagger score.
“It’s something everybody wanted to see,” Middleton said. “Especially in a game like this, a guy that has a lot of potential, a lot of talent coming up in this league and he’s playing well at this point going against a multi-MVP player that, length, skillset, and are similar in some type of ways, and athleticism, it was fun to watch. I’m just happy we came out with a win.
“But to see those two guys go at it, I don’t think the league has ever seen anything like that with two 7-footers, or close to 7-footers that can do a little bit of everything go at each other.”
While the final minutes of the game between the two titans were awe-inspiring, they began their tête-à-tête far earlier in the game.
In a three-minute stretch of the second quarter, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Wembanyama went highlight-for-highlight on each end of the court. First, with the Spurs playing a zone, Antetokounmpo spun through the defense and put down a thunderous dunk on several Spurs. Wembanyama went right down the court and flipped the ball off the lower part of the backboard to himself for a dunk – drawing a sly grin from Bobby Portis.
“As a fan of the game, someone who loves basketball and watches it every chance he gets, the game in good hands, man,” Portis said. “We got a two-time MVP, NBA champ in Giannis and a team that’s getting better on a daily basis and then on the flipside you got a 20-year-old kid today – who knows what he can be. Just to be a fan of the game, you appreciate it, man. It’s greatness.
“The things they’re capable of doing on a nightly basis. I’ve played with Giannis four years now and seen him do a lot of incredible things. On the flipside, its my first chance to watch ‘Wemby’ and he worked every second of it. He’s a great player.
“It’s just different. He’s one of one. To see a 7-4, 7-5 kid dribbling the ball for one, then putting up the threes for two. To be able to be on the floor, like I said, the game is in good hands.”
Antetokounmpo checked Wembanyama on the defensive end, and after a near steal the rookie tried a series of pivots and pump fakes but Antetokounmpo ultimately got him to give the ball up without a shot. Then, at the 8:17 mark Wembanyama swatted a Portis shot – to which Antetokounmpo responded with a signature chase down rejection of Blake Wesley at the other end.
Antetokounmpo then had a one-handed, left-hand dunk on Wembanyama in the third quarter that drew a foul after the rookie had scored 11 points – including a dunk that featured a behind-the-back move and a head nod to the fans – to cut a 11-point Bucks lead down to 75-72.
The giants continued their duel into the fourth quarter and final minutes
Antetokounmpo did something uncharacteristic to tie the score late and give his team a lead: He drilled back-to-back three-pointers that spotted the Bucks a 121-118 edge.
“There’s few moments in the game that you have – not in every game – but you have them at times, that you feel; you feel, like, greatness,” Antetokounmpo said of the three-pointer to go ahead. “I don’t know how to explain. You just feel the moment that you can put the signature in this moment. Usually, I wouldn’t take a three like that. I would have attacked. But I felt like that was the moment and I shot it. I got lucky. It went in.”
Wembanyama answered with a tying three-pointer of his own with 69 seconds left after he swatted a Lillard driving attempt – one the Bucks point guard didn’t think the rookie could get to – but Antetokounmpo chiseled his way to the basket for a highlight-reel dunk and foul with 53 seconds left.
“Somebody that I grew up watching and one of the greatest players of in the world, so it’s always extra motivation,” Wembanyama said of Antetokounmpo. “I’m a competitor, so I want to go at everyone and be the ‘bad guy’ on the court. It was a great matchup.”
They proved to be game winning points, but it wasn’t without drama afterward. Antetokounmpo looked to dunk on the rookie again to truly seal it to only see Wembanyama turn Antetokounmpo back with a strong block. It allowed the Spurs a game-tying, open three-point attempt by Tre Jones that missed.
“He’s special,” Antetokounmpo said of the young Frenchman. “He’s going to be an extremely good player. He’s got to stay healthy. He plays the right way, plays to win. Never seen anything like him. 7-4, 7-5. He’s not 7-3. He’s way taller than 7-3. Whoever says he’s 7-3, that’s a lie. But like, you haven’t seen anything like that. I haven’t. Maybe you guys have seen it. I don’t think you guys have seen it. So, the sky’s the limit.”
Pat Connaughton supplied the game’s final point afterward.
“Fun to watch, fun to be part of,” he said with a laugh. “I’m fortunate to be able to see (Antetokounmpo) every single day. To see him go against a kid like ‘Wemby’ who’s making a name for himself, it’s fun to watch. I think at the end of the day they have nothing but respect for each other. It’s the first of many battles is going to be my guess. I know at the end of the day Giannis doesn’t really look at the statistics, he looks at who won the game, and we were able to come out on top. But, it was fun to watch.”
For the players, coaches, full house and national TV audience, it was an impressive display by both players.
“There were definitely a few things where I was like yeah, I haven’t really seen that before,” Lopez said. “There was a point where I was on the bench and I was just watching the game and Giannis came down and did something amazing and then Wembanyama came back and did something amazing as well. It’s like wow! I’m watching something really special here. If the game is going something like this, I’m going to shoot a few more left shoulder jump hooks and that might be it for me for my normal down-to-earth stuff. It was really cool to see. It was awesome.
“It was a treat for me to be a part of, to watch. It’s something that’s just going to be so great for the league for years to come.”
Damian Lillard clocks in for Bucks in fourth quarter
Through three quarters, Bucks point guard Lillard was 5 for 12 from the field for 14 points, but he also had nine assists.
But the game was tied at 93 after three quarters, as the Spurs erased an 11-point deficit over the final 10 minutes of the period. In what was now a back-and-forth affair, Lillard realized his mindset had to change.
“With the way that I attack a lot of times I get into the paint and there’s always bodies there and I naturally make the right play – so when its bodies I always make the kick to the corner or I always make the pocket pass,” he said. “So I think sometimes when those plays are always there to be made and you’re surrounded by good players it’s easy to just make those plays over and over. And the game was tight, so it’s like alright, this is back-and-forth, some of these opportunities I’m going to have to – it might be a good opportunity there (to pass) but I’m going to take some of these opportunities and attack and go score.”
And he did after je checked in with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the 9-minute, 28-second mark and the Bucks trailing 102-99.
Lillard scored seven straight points from that moment and finished out the game with 11 points on 5 of 7 shooting.
“It’s a long season, man,” he said. “There’s going to be so many different types of games, there’s going to be games where you don’t play as well as you want, there’s going to be games where teams play well. Like, they played well tonight. And we can’t be in here like oh my God, why are we in a game with the Spurs because it’s the NBA. They can play. They’ve been in a lot of games like this. But I think it is why I’m here.”
Khris Middleton plays his first back-to-back
Following the Bucks’ loss to Indiana on Wednesday night, Khris Middleton was asked if he would play against the Spurs on Thursday – which would mark the first time he appeared in consecutive games this season.
As he usually does, he laughed and said the team would let everyone know. The Bucks did when Middleton didn’t appear on the injury report and he indeed played, starting his 30th game against San Antonio and playing his 10th straight game.
Bucks head coach Adrian Griffin said the team would monitor how Middleton handled the different workload and against the Spurs, and Middleton looked spry. He got into the paint off the dribble on offense and worked hard around screens on the defensive end.
He ended up playing 15 first half minutes, scoring 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting and handing out five assists. Middleon
“That helped me out a lot through this game, or the first half at least,” Middleton said of his usual first half workload. “I felt good that whole first half. This being my first back-to-back — I think Jon (Horst) told me in a year and a half, which is crazy — I’m happy about where I’m at. I’m happy I was able to be out here on the second night of a back-to-back feeling pretty good.”
A highlight was a signature, baseline 14-footer over the outstretched hand of Wembanyama.
“Kind of. With a guy like that, that is a great shot-blocker with a lot of length, it’s hard to score over a guy like that. It is a challenge to say ‘let me get one over him.’ I don’t think I took it personally. I was looking at a couple different actions on that play that didn’t happen and the last result was the pull-up jump shot. So, I took it, I probably put a little bit more on there than I had to, but I did it just to be safe.”
That was it for him, however, as Pat Connaughton started the second half in his stead.
“He played a half of a game on his first back-to-back, let’s see how he feels in the morning. It wasn’t something we were going to go into the game like he’s going to only play this (many minutes). We just wanted to play him, see how he responded and I think he’s in a good place and we want to keep him in a good place and then we’ll just see how he’s feeling in the morning.”
Even though it wasn’t a full game, it was yet another significant step forward for the 32-year-old all-star who first hit the 30-minute mark on Dec. 7 after beginning the year on a minute restriction. He had not played a back-to-back since April 7-8, 2022.
Middleton has missed just five games this season, four of which were one game of a back-to-back.
Thursday marked the 27th game Middleton played with Antetokounmpo and Lillard as the three have been largely healthy and available this season. Lillard has missed just two games, Antetokounmpo one.
The trio had played just the ninth-most minutes of any three players on the team but with Middleton now appearing to be available for the next six back-to-backs, the Bucks have an excellent chance to continue to build chemistry around their top offensive players. Heading into San Antonio they had a sparkling 126.9 offensive rating, or points scored per 100 possessions.
Defensively the trio had a 112.6 rating (points allowed per 100 possessions).
Bolstered by the uptick in Middleton’s minutes in December, the Bucks averaged 131.5 points per game, the highest scoring December in league history and the fourth highest-scoring month ever.
“We need that, assembling this team. Giannis needed to play with Dame. Dame needed to play with Giannis and Khris. It’s been great. I love how we’re coming together – still got a lot of work to do. Still needs to continue to jell and find some of our chemistry. But I think the month of December we had the highest offensive output, so we’re doing some good things and we just gotta continue to build.”
4-1 Bucks’ record in the second game of a back-to-back. Their only loss came on Nov. 9 against the Pacers.
8 Combined blocks between the two premier shot-blockers in the NBA in Brook Lopez (3) and Victor Wembanyama (5). Lopez now has 104 total swats to lead the league and Wembanyama is No. 2 with 96.
Lopez said, “It was definitely exciting going against him. It was a great barometer for us, but just to get a chance to see him play, play against him, it was a lot of fun. He’s just so talented. He can do everything. He really guards, too, plays hard. It was definitely exciting. I’m so impressed after seeing what he could do out there. It was really cool.”
17-2 Bucks’ record when ahead or tied after first quarter. They led 38-31 after one against the Spurs, with all eight Bucks who played scoring. Milwaukee led by as many as 13 in the opening minutes. Their first loss was in the In-Season Tournament on Dec. 7 to the Pacers (ahead 29-27) and the second loss was Jan. 1 to Pacers (ahead 32-25).
20 Victor Wembanyama’s age on Thursday, his birthday. He played his first 29 NBA games as a teenager, scoring 548 points – the fourth-most by a teen in that span in NBA history behind Kevin Durant (585), LeBron James (575) and Carmelo Anthony (551). Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 196 points in his first 29 games in 2013.
100,000 Dollar fine the NBA assessed to the Brooklyn Nets for violating the league’s new player participation policy vs. the Bucks on Dec. 27 in New York. The Bucks won 144-122 but the Nets backups kept it close until the fourth quarter.
In a statement, the league wrote: “Following an investigation, including review by an independent physician, the NBA determined that four Nets rotation players, who did not participate in the game, could have played under the medical standard in the Player Participation Policy, which was adopted prior to this season. The organization’s conduct violated the Policy, which is intended to promote player participation in the NBA’s 82-game season.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo named Eastern Conference Player of the Month
For the 10th time in his career, Antetokounmpo took home an NBA player of the month honor. The league announced on Thursday that the 29-year-old earned the distinction for his play over the month of December, which saw him set a single-game franchise scoring record with 64 points against Indiana. That game also included single-game records of free throws made (24) and attempted (32). On Dec. 17 het set the career franchise rebounding record.
He set a career-high with 16 assists on Dec. 19 and scored 30 or more points on 60% shooting a league-high seven times in the month. As a team, the Bucks went 11-2.
Giannis, Damian Lillard headline initial NBA all-star fan vote
The NBA has changed its all-star format yet again, with the teams going back to Eastern and Western Conference rosters. And in the East, Antetokounmpo leads all frontcourt players with 2,171,812 fan votes.
Lillard, in his first season in the conference, trails only Oshkosh native and Indiana Pacers point guard Tyrese Haliburton in the guards fan voting. Lillard made seven all-star teams as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Haliburton, who would be playing on his home court at the All-Star Game, had 1,380,795 votes. Lillard had 955,751.
Malik Beasley hopes to get into all-star three-point contest
The Bucks’ shooting guard is entering Thursday night’s game shooting 46.8% from behind the three-point line, by far a career-best through 32 games. It is good for third in the NBA, behind Phoenix’s Kevin Durant (47.7%) and Indiana’s Aaron Nesmith (47.5%).
“Definitely it’s ben one of my best years, consistently,” Beasley said. “I think I’ve had years where I get hot and then some games I go 2-for-8 or 2-for-10. I think it becomes easier when you have guys on the floor that I’m with. I’ve never been so happy to get in the corner because that’s where the shot is. Just staying in rhythm and making shots, keeping my work in, even on off days and just continuing to stay healthy.”
He is currently tied with Brook Lopez for the most games with five or more three-pointers (nine) in Bucks history, putting Ray Allen’s record of 12 in definite jeopardy.
Middleton was the last Bucks player to participate in the three-point contest, doing so in 2018-19. He also was part of the 2015-16 competition. Allen participated in three contests, winning in 2001. Eric Murdock (1994) and Craig Hodges (1986-88) also represented the Bucks in the competition.
First appeared on www.jsonline.com