November 30, 2023

LOS ANGELES — It didn’t take long for Giannis Antetokounmpo to realize just how different life would be for him playing alongside seven-time All-Star Damian Lillard compared to the rest of his 11-year NBA career.

It was all but one possession into the pair’s first preseason game together Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers when things became crystal clear for the two-time MVP.

“I’ll be very honest,” Antetokounmpo said after the Bucks’ 108-97 win, “I’ve never been this open. And first of all, I’ve never seen anybody being double-teamed from the first possession of the game.”

Lillard, acquired by the Bucks as part of a three-team deal with the Phoenix Suns and the Portland Trail Blazers last month, said that pairing with a player like Antetokounmpo made the Lakers’ defensive schemes easy to digest.

“Having another guy out there that’s just dominant,” Lillard said after Antetokounmpo scored 16 points in 15 minutes on 7-for-10 shooting. “He can dominate a game and win you a game. … First couple plays, they blitz me, they trap me and the guy that I’m releasing the ball to is Giannis. So I’m just like, ‘Uh, we can do this all night.’ You know what I mean?”

The duo officially logged their partnership in the scorebook midway through the first quarter when Lillard stole the ball from Lakers center Christian Wood and sped up court, delivering a bullet of a pass to rack up an assist on an Antetokounmpo transition dunk. Lillard didn’t attempt his first shot until the next possession, with 6:24 remaining in the first, when he got fouled by D’Angelo Russell beyond the 3-point line.

They ran pick-and-roll together in the half court. Sometimes Lillard handled the ball and Antetokounmpo set the screen; sometimes the roles were reversed and Lillard used his 6-foot-2, 195-pound frame to spring the Bucks star.

“We’re going to have a lot of options,” Lillard said. “There’s going to be times where he’s willing to make the play to me, and vice versa, as we saw today.”

Milwaukee held a 56-53 lead at the half when Bucks coach Adrian Griffin gave Antetokounmpo the rest of the night off. Lillard finished with 14 points on 3-for-10 shooting, including going 6-for-6 on free throws, and added four steals and three assists. He started the second half, giving him a chance to control the action without Antetokounmpo on the floor, before resting in the fourth quarter.

As limited as the dress rehearsal might have been, with Antetokounmpo and Lillard finally sharing the court for only a couple of quarters in the third game of the Bucks’ five-game exhibition slate, Griffin was impressed with what he saw.

“Today was a great first step in the right direction,” Griffin said. “You can see those guys love playing together already. And not just Dame and Giannis, but everyone was just pulling for each other.”

The 28-year-old Antetokounmpo praised the 33-year-old Lillard as much for the person he is as he lauded him as a player.

“I feel like it’s like a little version of me,” Antetokounmpo. “A guard version. … Quiet. Goes about his business. Takes care of his family. Shows up. Practices really hard. Helps his teammates when he needs to be vocal. … And when the game starts, he’s just a killer.”

“I’ll be very honest, I’ve never been this open. And first of all, I’ve never seen anybody being double-teamed from the first possession of the game.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo

While the Bucks big man has helped his team win 50-plus games in four out of the past five seasons and earn a title in 2021, he has been an eager student of Lillard’s during training camp — especially when it comes to Milwaukee’s new offense, implemented by assistant coach Terry Stotts, who was Lillard’s head coach in Portland.

“I learned so much from him,” Antetokounmpo said of Lillard. “He knows how to play this game. He puts himself in position to be successful. He helps us and puts me in position to be successful.”

Lillard is anticipating the failures his new team will experience while building toward their championship goal, knowing it won’t be a linear process to success.

“It might take a time where Giannis might have to get mad at me over something,” Lillard said with a laugh. “Something’s got to happen for you to really start to learn who we are and how we come together.”

Antetokounmpo said Lillard has nothing to worry about.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to be mad at him,” Antetokounmpo said. “What he does for this team is so much that you can never be upset. … What he does, just by him being out there, he creates so much attention. It makes our game easier. … By him basically doing nothing, just walking around, just being Damian Lillard.”

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