May 20, 2024

SAN ANTONIO — As Keldon Johnson threw down a thunderous dunk with a second remaining to seal the San Antonio Spurs’ first victory of the season, Victor Wembanyama leapt into the air as his teammate left the ground.

When the ball went through the basket, Wembanyama was already turned the other way, jumping up and down the court while imploring the Spurs’ fans in the Frost Bank Center to get even louder than they already were.

It was also Wembanyama’s late efforts — he tied the score late in the fourth quarter and gave the Spurs the lead for good in overtime — that helped propel San Antonio to a 126-122 win over the Houston Rockets.

“I really, really love winning,” Wembanyama said. “It’s what I love most in life, so of course it feels great.”

Wembanyama finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he became the first Spurs player with 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in a game since Tim Duncan and the second Spurs player in team history to have a 20-point, 10-rebound game within his first two career games, joining David Robinson.

Wembanyama shot 7-of-19 from the field and missed all six of his 3-point attempts but went 7-of-8 from the line and made it count when it mattered down the stretch.

Trailing by two on their final possession in regulation, the Spurs worked the ball around to Wembanyama, who was posted up against Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr. Wembanyama drove toward the baseline, got into the paint and managed to get a shot to fall over the outstretched arms of Smith.

After Smith missed a potential tying 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, Wembanyama got the rebound but was tied up by Rockets guard Dillon Brooks, preventing the Spurs from getting a chance to win in regulation.

In overtime, Wembanyama gave the Spurs the lead for good when he hit a 16-foot fadeaway on the left side over Brooks.

San Antonio pushed the lead to as many as six in the extra period but cut it to two with 17.3 to play on a Jalen Green layup.

That’s when Spurs power forward-turned-point guard Jeremy Sochan hit a pair of free throws to push the lead back to four.

Sochan, who started shooting his free throws one-handed at the request of coach Gregg Popovich and assistant Brett Brown last season, knocked down the shots after Spurs guard Devin Vassell missed two on the previous possession.

Sochan, who shot 45.8% on free throws before switching his shot last season and 76.1% after, was 3-of-6 from the line in game one and hit all four of his attempts Friday night.

“I went up to the free throws kind of just not thinking about anything — it’s just me, the basketball and the basket,” Sochan said. “I believe in myself. I think everyone else believes in me, so it feels good.

“Devin missing two free throws is the rarest thing you’ll ever see. … We are all here for each other and stuff. I love those kinds of situations going forward. It’s good.”

After another Green layup, Johnson’s dunk finished off the game.

For three quarters, the Spurs struggled with their energy, according to Wembanyama. That all seemed to change when he entered the game in the fourth quarter.

“At some point, they were making shots and were being successful on every play,” Wembanyama said. “We didn’t put our head down, but our energy and hype weren’t as persistent enough. I think the rotations by the end of the fourth quarter, bringing fresh energy on the court and managed to keep us in the game and get to overtime.”

One of the plays that injected energy into the crowd and to the Spurs was Wembanyama’s double block of Smith late in the fourth quarter.

With the Spurs trailing by three, Smith caught a pass from Green and took a step and a half below the free throw line to soar for a dunk that would have given the Rockets a five-point lead with 2:00 to go.

But Wembanyama met Smith at the rim and swatted his dunk attempt away with his right hand, stumbling backward out of bounds. Smith gathered the rebound and as he tried to go up for a reverse putback layup, Wembanyama got back in bounds and blocked that attempt with his left hand.

“I said this after the first preseason game or scrimmage, but he’s going to make some amazing plays at least once a game, and tonight he probably had three or four,” Vassell said.

“But that’s just a testament to him, and like I keep preaching, he makes the game easier for us and we got to make it easier for him.”

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