Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard’s work on 2-man game paying off for Bucks

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LOS ANGELES — With just under a minute and a half remaining in Sunday’s game against the LA Clippers, Giannis Antetokounmpo caught a pass Damian Lillard lobbed over the defense to him on the left wing. Antetokounmpo began to survey the floor and try to find the opening, but he quickly gave up that notion.

“Dame wanted the ball,” Antetokounmpo said of the play. “He was yelling, ‘Ball! Ball! Ball! Ball!’ When a guy like that is yelling for the ball, you gotta give it to him.”

Rather than letting his teammate try to make a play, Lillard saw an opening for himself and took full advantage. After Lillard lofted the pass over to Antetokounmpo, Clippers guard Norman Powell relaxed for a moment and glanced over at Antetokounmpo. As Powell took a peek at Antetokounmpo, Lillard sprinted toward Antetokounmpo.

“I saw him coming full speed and I just gave him the ball and … all-time great,” Antetokounmpo said with a shrug and a smile. “He did what he did, man. Tough off-balance shot, made it and gave us momentum. And I think from that play, we won the game. It won us the game.”

Lillard’s 3-pointer gave the Milwaukee Bucks a 10-point lead, their largest of the afternoon, with 1:19 remaining and the Bucks eventually beat the Clippers, 124-117, to end a two-game losing skid. Lillard was spectacular in the fourth quarter, scoring 16 points, and ended the night with 35 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists. Antetokounmpo had a big game as well, putting up 34 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.

But it was more than the duo’s sheer numbers. It was more than them combining for 69 of the Bucks’ 124 points or scoring 25 of the Bucks’ 33 points in the fourth quarter on Sunday. It was more than Antetokounmpo and Lillard both recording 10 or more assists in the same game for the second consecutive game.

For the first time all season, exemplified in Lillard’s final 3-pointer on Sunday and many other plays throughout the weekend, Antetokounmpo and Lillard appear to be in sync as playmakers. Rather than two heliocentric superstars taking turns, Antetokounmpo and Lillard are finally beginning to play like a duo, regularly complementing each other with the right decisions, passes and plays on the offensive end.

“I think it’s getting much better,” Lillard said. “To start the season, I think a lot of people wanted it to just click and happen right away. But I think anytime you put two guys together who’ve always been the decision maker, always had the ball in your hands for years and years and years, it’s going to take time for us to learn how to play with each other and learn how to play off of one another.”

“And I think we’re just, first of all, having a lot more dialogue about what I need from him and he’s telling me what he needs for me. And I think our understanding is getting much better. And because of that, I’m able to get to certain spots and I’m using him against the defense and vice versa. When we get the kind of attention that we’ve been getting where it’s a guy guarding me and his guy is being aggressive and then the help is pulling over to guard whichever one of us ends up with the ball, then the next guy is getting a clean shot.”

As Lillard suggested after Sunday’s win, the two-man game is clicking better now than it has at any point this season and it is not just because of the brilliance of Antetokounmpo and Lillard. The Bucks are now doing a better job of spacing the floor around their two-man game and putting players in the right spots to take advantage of defenses.

While the fourth quarter on Sunday stood out because of how many points the duo scored, there are also smaller plays in which those principles are on display, like this corner 3 from Jae Crowder in the third quarter.

In Lillard’s opinion, the recent success of his two-man game with Antetokounmpo is not an accident. It has been an emphasis for the duo since Rivers took over. In fact, Rivers has asked them to focus on it so much in practices and shootarounds that the whole team finds themselves laughing about it in practice.

“I think it’s reached the point where we’re playing a game, but when it’s time to consider the next action, we’re doing the next action with each other in mind,” Lillard said. “We’ve laughed about it in practice. The team, sometimes they’ll laugh at shootaround, Doc will put us on one side of the floor and put everybody else on the other side of the floor.

“And he’ll be like, ‘All right, Giannis, set the screen … throw it back … now dribble it back to Dame … Dame, throw it back.’ And we’re just kind of like going back and forth with each other for 15 seconds and then he’ll be like, ‘All right, somebody shoot.’ And then we shoot and everybody starts laughing because he’s like, ‘Y’all have to play off each other. You gotta play together.’

“He’s kind of like scripting us playing off of each other. And I think because he’s done it you know so many times in practice and shootaround. It went from a joke to now, when those situations come, like that last one, Giannis went to the wing and I just took off running towards him.”

Antetokounmpo recounted the same practice court experience.

“We work on it now,” Antetokounmpo said. “Before, I think we thought it’s going to be, (Dame) comes out of the pick and roll. ‘Boom. I hit Giannis. Giannis is going to do his thing.’ If Giannis is not there, I’m going to shoot it. Now we work on it.

“I think we are more patient … But again, we don’t just talk about it only, we practice it. Like there’s been a lot of practices that me and Dame and the whole team, we do five on (zero) and we go like five straight minutes, just me and Dame going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I have something and then I go right back to him. Now, organically, you can see it coming out in the game, and I’m happy about that.”

On Sunday, the result of that work was obvious.

After the game, Lillard told reporters that early he realized that the Clippers were trying to keep him on one side of the floor on each offensive possession. If he brought the ball up the right side of the floor, their defensive coverage was going to keep him from getting to the other side and vice versa. Lillard held onto that knowledge until the fourth quarter when he started having his teammates clear out the left side and went to work with Antetokounmpo in a two-man game to close out the Clippers.

With an entire side of the floor cleared out, Antetokounmpo and Lillard took their time.

First, Lillard used the space created by Antetokounmpo to probe the defense and find himself a midrange jumper.

Then, Lillard used the attention given to the two-man game to find Brook Lopez for a 3.

And finally, Lillard called his own number for a left-wing 3.


Each of these plays set the stage for Lillard’s big 3 to close it out. All afternoon long, Lillard and Antetokounmpo got where they wanted and made plays for themselves and their teammates, ultimately leading the Bucks to their first win on their four-game West Coast road trip.

“Dame and Giannis, I just think the combination — I don’t even look at them as one (player),” Rivers said. “I think the combination of them is what creates all the action.”

If the Bucks are going to compete for a championship this season, it will be because of Lillard and Antetokounmpo. After 65 games, that duo is starting to show off the type of offensive chemistry that can carry a team through the postseason.

(Photo of Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo: Kiyoshi Mio / USA Today)

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