MILWAUKEE — For 43 minutes on Saturday, the Dallas Mavericks did everything they could to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo. And for 43 minutes, they never really found a good answer to their problem.
He knocked down a pair of free throws with a little more than five minutes left to up his scoring to 38 points. By then the seven-time All-Star had made 17 of his 27 shots and scored 32 points in the paint in helping create a one-point lead. He also had tallied seven assists. And yet, with the game still in the balance, Antetokounmpo moved aside in crunchtime and watched as his new teammate, Damian Lillard, took over and operated the offense.
On the next four possessions, all run by Lillard, the Bucks scored 11 points. In that same span they did enough defensively to open up a seven-point lead en route to pulling out a 132-125 victory to move to 9-4 on the season. Antetokounmpo finished with 40 points, 15 points and seven assists. Lillard ended the night with 27 points, three rebounds and 12 assists, including eight points and two assists while running the show for the final five minutes.
Their combined 48-minute effort was, to date, the best example of exactly what the rest of the league feared when Bucks general manager Jon Horst paired two of the league’s most powerful offensive engines of the last decade by trading for Lillard days before training camp opened in Milwaukee.
“I think tonight, he’s the horse,” Lillard said of Antetokounmpo. “I wanna see him be four-time MVP or five-time MVP and have those type of games. And I’m here because I’ve had a lot of success. I’ve won a lot of games, I’ve had a lot of individual success, but I’m here to win.
“Us winning is not gonna look like my performances in Portland all the time, even though there will be some of those nights. But like I said, he’s the horse and … there’s gonna be a quarter where I jump out front and carry the load, I dominate a quarter. Or down the stretch, five minutes, six minutes, you’re gonna see me probably take control and take command of that because those are my moments. And it just has to be a balance of us both and us complementing each other leading to wins.”
On the first of the four possessions that opened up the Bucks’ lead, Lillard received a screen from Antetokounmpo and used that advantage to draw a foul on Kyrie Irving, who had 39 points and six assists of his own Saturday.
But after that, Lillard worked with Brook Lopez. While Antetokounmpo occupied the high quadrant on the right side of the floor, Lillard and Lopez went to work on the left side. And despite only having a small corner of the floor, Lillard used his shifty ballhandling, a good screen from Lopez and his own 3-point marksmanship to create a relatively open look.
On the next possession, Lillard used his gravity as well as the shot he had made on the previous possession to draw the attention of two defenders and then find Lopez rolling toward the basket, which led to a pair of free throws for the big man.
And then Lillard pushed the ball up the floor in transition after a miss from Luka Dončiċ, who tallied 35 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in the loss.
After not finding anything on the initial push, Lillard pulled the ball out and called for another screen from Lopez. He used that one to get into the lane, drawing the attention of nearly the entire defense with a paint touch, before kicking it out to Pat Connaughton in the corner for a catch-high, keep-high 3 to give the Bucks a 125-117 lead.
Lillard didn’t need Saturday night to prove anything. His résumé speaks for itself. He has thrived in these moments throughout his career and is comfortable with the ball in his hands late in games.
“At that time of the game, I think you got to have the ball in the hands of a good decision maker and somebody that’s a threat to the defense,” Lillard said. “And I know that every defense we see is going to view me as a threat. And I just feel like I can I can get it done at that time, whether I’m scoring or making a play or if I get fouled going to the free throw line.”
While Antetokounmpo was on the floor for all four plays, he never touched the ball. And after being directly involved in the first play by setting a screen for Lillard as the shot clock wound down, Antetokounmpo found himself operating on the periphery of the other three plays. After the game, he admitted that is going to be a major change for him this season.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m not used to it in that capacity,” he said. “I’ll say, usually when Khris (Middleton) or in the past, when Jrue (Holiday) had the ball or whoever in the past, Malcolm (Brogdon), had the ball down the stretch, it was give and take. They had the ball for two, three, four possession and then I had the ball for two, three, four possessions or they kind of touch the ball. (Now), we can go like three, four, five minutes down the stretch without me actually even touching the ball and I’m not used to that.”
To his credit, he’s not shying away from it because he believes it can make him and the team better down the road.
“At the end of the day, like through all the new things that we are doing in this team and me not being in my comfort zone, I believe that I’m going to be able to become the best version of myself,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m kind of trying to be as much (as possible), I think throughout the whole season, out of my comfort zone, you know? So, at the end of the day, I hope that when it matters the most, I’m going to be the best version of myself and I can try to help my teammates in the best way that I can.
“But again, I’m happy that we have a guy that can have the ball down the stretch and make plays and create for himself, get to the free throw line and create plays for us. And it takes a lot of pressure from me and a lot of attention from me, too.”
As Antetokounmpo showed to close out the game, Lillard handling the ball late in games will not preclude the rest of the roster, including Antetokounmpo, from getting chances to create with the game on the line. He created an open 3-point attempt for Connaughton with just under two minutes remaining, and then Antetokounmpo delivered the final dagger with a pull-up jumper on the left wing with 29.7 seconds remaining.
Trying to figure out exactly how this partnership is going to look was always going to take time. The entire organization was aware of that before the season began. While there have been ups and downs in the Bucks’ performance through 13 games, Saturday’s win felt like a big step in Antetokounmpo and Lillard figuring out how to control a game together across 48 minutes.
“It’s just good balance,” Lillard said. “You got a guy as dominant as he is, you gotta let him be dominant. What I’ve tried to do is find my way of just making sure I’m being aggressive so that three quarters don’t go by and I’m just kind of like stuck and I’m not in a good rhythm, I’m not into the game. And I’m starting to find that.
“But I think when he’s playing that way, I gotta make sure that I match him in a way that’s positive. Not his turn, my turn, but I gotta be effective while he’s doing what he’s doing. Whether that’s my spacing or when they go double him and they throw it to me and I’m open, I gotta take and make those shots. So it’s a pick your poison type of situation where we can play off of each other.”
Even with a positive step forward in Saturday’s win, Bucks head coach Adrian Griffin found himself thinking about how much further they could take this thing together and how much more Antetokounmpo and Lillard can learn from each other.
“Well, I think that every game that they’re getting more comfortable with each other and they’re trusting each other,” Griffin said. “It’s so dynamic out there and it is scary when I think they’re going to get better and better and it’s going to be even more frightening for opponents when they really start figuring it out on a consistent basis, but you see that they’re building chemistry.
“And I’ve said this from day one that it takes time to build chemistry and their cohesiveness together. And the only way around it is to play and be on the floor with each other. And it’s still early, but they’re going to figure it out. They’ve been figuring it out. There are two high character guys that want to win, and they showed that tonight.”
(Photo of Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo: Gary Dineen / NBAE via Getty Images)