MILWAUKEE — Five minutes after Damian Lillard entered the Bucks’ facilities for the first time, Giannis Antetokounmpo entered the building, too. After months of silence and standoffs and refusal to deal Lillard to his preferred destination, the Miami Heat, the Portland Trail Blazers traded their franchise face to Milwaukee. And the Bucks’ incumbent Top-75 player in NBA history, a two-time MVP, wanted to assure Lillard he viewed his organization becoming a true partnership despite years of Milwaukee having mostly become an Antetokounmpo solo act.
Lillard was supposed to conduct a physical, but that medical examination plus any other required procedure had to wait until after night became morning. Because he and Antetokounmpo sat and talked and envisioned a recipe to claim a championship, together.
“One of the main things he kept saying was, ‘I’ma do what I do, and I want you to do what you do,’” Lillard said Thursday. “And you close out games.”
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That’s exactly how Lillard punctuated his first outing wearing Bucks green, blitzing the visiting Philadelphia 76ers for 39 points — the most in a Milwaukee debut in franchise history — including 14 points in the final four minutes of an entertaining 118-117 Bucks victory.
When the Sixers reclaimed a late lead and the contest wrestled to the finish, Bucks veterans Jae Crowder and Cam Payne were in Lillard’s ear.
“Dame, finish ’em.”
“Close ’em out.”
So Lillard did what he does. He found Kelly Oubre Jr. on a switch on the left wing. He sized up the longer defender, baiting Oubre with a behind-the-back dribble to his right. Then he snatched it back with a shifty crossover and stepped even further away from Oubre’s reach to launch a 30-footer through cotton and give Milwaukee a critical 116-111 lead.
But the most telling moment came with the game clock dripping below 30 seconds. Clinging to a two-point edge, Antetokounmpo took the inbound pass up the floor and crossed half court. Lillard recalled their late-night conversation. “I was kinda reading him, like, ‘What you want to do?’” Lillard said. “And he was like, ‘Come get the ball.’”
Lillard collected the rock, stared at Oubre once more and this time ripped right past his defender to drive down the lane and draw a foul from Joel Embiid. A timeout came before Lillard’s 16th and 17th free throws of the night, and allowed him another private chat with Antetokounmpo en route to the Bucks’ bench.
“He wanted me to make that final decision,” Lillard said.
It was a familiar ending within a foreign setting. Over a decade in Portland, Lillard would walk through the back alleys of Moda Center and onto the court and know every staffer throughout the stadium. As he went through his warmups, he recognized face after face who’d attended his games season after season. Thursday night, Lillard was wandering through the bowels of Fiserv Forum, just outside the Bucks’ home locker room, asking a security guard what room held the evening’s makeshift chapel, where players and coaches from both teams can come together for a pregame moment of prayer.
“It kinda feels like a road game right now,” Lillard said. “I’m looking around like I’m the new guy, even though I’ve been in this league a long time.”
He’s settling and acclimating. Lillard has sought extra footage of his budding pick-and-roll partnership. Lillard has never paired with such a dynamic screener. Antetokounmpo is not the most eager screener or the most terrifying threat to pop and rise from distance, but he may be the most damaging downhill player the league has ever seen.
“They’re still learning, still growing together, still finding chemistry. So this is just another step in the right direction,” Bucks head coach Adrian Griffin said. “It takes time. This is just gonna be a snapshot of where we are today. And we’ll continue to get better tomorrow. But they’re both pros and working extremely hard. But we also keep everything in perspective. They’ve just had a small body of work together.”
It worked quite seamlessly through one night and one game. Milwaukee knows that nothing more is guaranteed or given. These are largely the same Bucks who built the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, only to falter to the Heat in five first-round games, part ways with head coach Mike Budenholzer and ultimately swap All-Star guard Jrue Holiday in favor of Lillard.
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The Bucks are still enduring change. The sudden departure of assistant coach Terry Stotts has left a gap in Milwaukee’s staff as Bucks officials are still working through the process of determining whether to replace Stotts’ role, league sources told Yahoo Sports, or simply move each assistant up the ladder. But they will move through any staffing adjustments while Lillard is closing games and while knowing Antetokounmpo is more than approving of the blockbuster move.
If you need any further indication as to how resounding Antetokounmpo’s three-year, $186 million contract extension has been felt in Milwaukee — after his repeated comments about not signing any paperwork until after the season preceded the acquisition of Lillard — there is now an electronic billboard over I-794. It blinks with a photograph of Antetokounmpo, his signature sketched on it and a celebratory message about one of the game’s greatest recommitting to the only franchise he’s ever known.