EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Victor Wembanyama’s kaiju takeover halts Suns’ late comeback attempt

Nov 2, 2023, 11:16 PM

PHOENIX — You’ve probably referred to Godzilla as a giant lizard before, and while that’s not too far off, the proper term in Japan is kaiju. You know when Godzilla starts fighting some other giant monster towering above skyscrapers? That’s also a kaiju.

Godzilla’s next foe might be Victor Wembanyama.

The top selection in the 2023 draft had superstardom tabbed for his basketball destiny before he even stepped onto a NBA floor, hyped in a way only few prospects across all sports have been in the last quarter-century.

He’s meeting it already, and on Thursday night against the Phoenix Suns, he looked like he was ready to exceed it.

Wembanyama scored 38 points in a 132-121 Suns loss, numbers that don’t do what we witnessed justice considering how calmly a 19-year-old swatted away a spirited comeback effort from an experienced team like Godzilla does to planes whizzing by his ears.

Phoenix (2-3) rallied back from a 22-point deficit late in the third quarter to tie the game at 116 with 4:21 to go, and Spurs (3-2) head coach Gregg Popovich had already burned all his timeouts, so his team was going to have to just figure it out from there.

His young group showed remarkable composure from there, led by Wembanyama. They went on a 12-0 run to ice the game, and 10 of those points were scored by Wembanyama.

There is no real way to defend the 7-foot-4 Wembanyama when he’s in a groove and the Suns learned that the hard way.

Phoenix tried a lot of switching, which went poorly. San Antonio is starting to establish some chemistry with figuring out lob passes, and as long as that ball isn’t tossed to Jupiter, those long arms will snatch it down for an easy finish. The Spurs ran a whole lot more pick-and-rolls with Wembanyama diving to the basket on Thursday and he feasted.

If he’s guarded straight up, Wembanyama’s going to shoot over anyone. He can already create so much separation at this point in his development that he can get to the basket to draw foul calls there too.

But honestly, just watch these plays and count how many you’ve never seen before in that manner from a guy that big and that quick.

The amount of poise from Wembanyama in the fourth quarter and his ability to adjust throughout this game was just as impressive as those never-been-seen-before moments.

“He’s an unbelievable talent,” Devin Booker said of Wembanyama. “I think everybody knows that. And just trying to figure out what he is because we’ve never seen him before.”

Something Kevin Durant pointed out is the majority of Wembanyama’s points weren’t him going to work in the post or on the perimeter creating offense. He was able to do it within the flow of the game, finding opportunities in transition, around the basket and off the ball.

“He didn’t do much handling the ball or 1-on-1 action or posting us up — he just kept the game simple and that’s what great players do,” Durant said.

Phoenix wasn’t necessarily sleepwalking at the start of this one but just did not execute enough with its rotations on defense. San Antonio got out to a 13-0 lead, thanks largely to Wemabnyama’s impact defensively as he roamed off Josh Okogie to junk up the Suns’ offensive flow. The Spurs were locked in immediately, out-hustling Phoenix and also doing a great job of rotating defensively and spacing the floor offensively.

For whatever reason, the Suns were floored by this, playing what is far and away the worst 12 minutes we’ve seen from them this season. San Antonio buried them for it, with an 8-for-13 mark from 3 to lead by 19 going into the second quarter.

Further spiraling commenced, where within four minutes Phoenix’s deficit expanded to 27. It was particularly impressive from the Spurs, who looked like a well-oiled machine full of veterans executing a system they’d been thriving in for years, like the Denver Nuggets or Golden State Warriors. Except they are young, inexperienced and were really bad last season. And they had more or less looked like that again on Tuesday.

The surprise was more from Phoenix given how high the level of competitiveness has been across its first four games. Head coach Frank Vogel’s desire to build the culture around energy and physicality was getting through to his group, so this was new.

The Suns’ turnover issues were present on Tuesday by committing 19 of ’em but the Spurs managed only 16 points off those extra possessions. The regression to the mean was rather aggressive on Thursday, with San Antonio at 15 points off just seven midway through the second quarter.

The Spurs had some terrific shot-making in the second half on Tuesday and that showed up for nearly all of this game. It was without a doubt an ugly Suns defensive performance but San Antonio just kept stringing buckets together to maintain a large advantage.

Yuta Watanabe started the second half in place of Okogie to help the spacing out but the game continued to look the same on both ends.

That was until Booker took over the game prior to Wembanyama’s closing act. He was brilliant in his first game back from a left ankle sprain after missing three, finishing with 31 points, nine rebounds, 13 assists and five turnovers on 10-for-19 shooting. Durant added a 10-of-15 night for 28 points but there was no huge scoring punch elsewhere to compete in a shootout to this level.

Drew Eubanks was solid with 13 points and Keita Bates-Diop had 13 of his own, providing a spark in the second half after not appearing to be in the initial rotation for the first 17 minutes. Grayson Allen knocked down four 3s to get him to 16 points after starting in place of Bradley Beal (low back spasms) again.

Inside of all this was a severe outcome regarding Jusuf Nurkic’s limitations hurting Phoenix. He’s got just about no explosion left in his legs at this point in his career, hurting his ability to finish around the rim despite being a guy of his size. San Antonio’s movement offensively was also really pushing him to rotate and the Spurs kept finding enough room in the paint before he was in proper enough position.

Nurkic didn’t play in the fourth, nor did Okogie. The Suns can win with Booker and Durant while Beal gets healthy if they defend. But if they don’t, they will need to really produce offensively and this was not one of those nights.

Phoenix mixed in Eubanks and Durant at the 5, while Bates-Diop and Allen got the other closing spots after Watanabe was pulled with four minutes to go for Eubanks. Watanabe was 0-for-4 from 3, something you won’t see much from him the rest of the year.

San Antonio held on in the second half without guard Devin Vassell, who scored 17 points in the first half before injuring his groin. Jeremy Sochan had his best game of the year thus far, playing great defense on Booker late and finishing with 14 points, five rebounds, nine assists and just one turnover.

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