May 27, 2024

MILWAUKEE — Ever since the Bucks acquired Damian Lillard in a blockbuster trade one month ago, they have encouraged their newest superstar to be himself on the floor, urging him especially to take control late in games.

So, Lillard’s Bucks debut Thursday night played out exactly as the team had envisioned. He scored 39 points — a record for points in a first game with the franchise — including the team’s final 11 points in the fourth quarter to help Milwaukee seal a 118-117 season-opening victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

“I’ve had enough conversations with guys, especially with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], that I came in knowing what was expected of me,” Lillard said after the game. “They’re encouraging me to be the person to take control, make decisions and decide what’s going to happen in those moments.”

Milwaukee trailed 104-102 with four minutes remaining when Lillard took over. He scored 14 points over the final four minutes, nearly matching the Sixers’ output (15 points) by himself.

Lillard put the game all but out of reach with a 30-foot step-back 3-pointer over Kelly Oubre Jr. with 1:13 remaining, icing the game in his signature fashion.

“That’s a look that I’ll take seven days a week,” Lillard said. “That was a comfort shot.”

“At the end of the day, he had the hot hand and you’ve got to keep on feeding it. You’ve got to keep going with what works,” said Antetokounmpo, who finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds.

“A guy that can make plays down the stretch. A guy that’s going to lead the team. A guy that’s going to make shots, put us in the right position. A guy that’s going to be aggressive throughout the whole game, create for himself. He was unbelievable today.”

The Bucks have been one of the NBA’s best teams in recent years, winning more regular-season games than any other team since the start of the 2018-19 season. But their crunch-time offense has never been a strength — they were 18th in the NBA in offensive rating during clutch time in the 2022-23 season.

Consider Lillard’s performance down the stretch Thursday night compared to the fourth quarter of Milwaukee’s Game 5 loss to the Miami Heat that ended last season for the Bucks, when the entire team combined for 16 points during the fourth quarter.

“I’m going to do what I do, and I want you to do what you do; you close out games,” Lillard recalled Antetokounmpo telling him in one of their first conversations after the trade. “We know that’s what you do, and that’s what we need you to do here.”

This was the first time in Lillard’s 11-year career that he did not begin the season with the Portland Trail Blazers, a reality that he said still feels odd to him. For years, Lillard had gotten used to coming to the arena for game days and knowing everyone working on the staff and even recognizing longtime season-ticket holders in the stands.

He admitted Thursday’s opener felt almost like a road game to him as he still adjusts to his new environment.

“But I came here to be a part of winning,” he said. “I’m starting to settle in just by how I’ve been embraced.”

Once the game tipped off, Lillard noticed another difference, but this one was a positive development. For years in Portland, he felt like he needed to shoulder all the responsibility — calling the plays, calling out what’s happening on the court. But early on in the first quarter, he noticed veterans such as Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez directing traffic, and possessions where he could just feed Antetokounmpo and let the two-time MVP go to work.

“Man, this is going to help me be stronger for complete games instead of wearing down sometimes,” Lillard said. “I can kind of, I don’t want to say relax, but I don’t have to be so out front all the time.”

At least not until the Bucks need him to be. If everything felt abnormal for Lillard in the lead-up to the game, things felt familiar in the way it ended, with the ball in his hands, leading his team to victory.

“Dame is Dame. We knew what we were getting when we got him,” Bucks coach Adrian Griffin said. “Dame played a really smart game as far as, he knew when he had to take over. You could see [Lillard and Antetokounmpo] complemented each other out there. They really do.

“It’s only going to get better. It’s just one game, it takes time to build that chemistry. We showed flashes of what’s to come.”

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