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Damian Lillard Is Finally Part of the Contender He Deserves With the Bucks

The seven-time All-Star made his debut with Milwaukee on Sunday, shining on a team built to play in June after spending more than 10 years with the Trail Blazers.

It was a preseason game. Or was it? ESPN cameras, a sold-out crowd, physicality you rarely see in a meaningless mid-October matchup. Lakers vs. Bucks on Sunday afternoon had a regular-season vibe. Maybe more. When Milwaukee’s locker room door swung open after a 108–97 win, no one marched out of it with a broader smile than Damian Lillard.

For all the talk about money and Miami, this, this, was what Lillard missed. The energy. The excitement. The chance to play for a contender. In his first game in a Bucks uniform Lillard scored 14 points in 22 minutes. His shot was rusty (3-for-10 from the floor) and, not surprisingly, his timing was a little off. But he was a plus-7 overall and had a few menacing moments alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor.

“Good luck to everyone else,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “I’m glad we only have to see them twice a season.”

Damian Lillard puts his hands out to high five Giannia Antetokoumpo

Antetokounmpo and Lillard are part of the Bucks’ new big three.

Across the Eastern Conference, coaches are scrambling to come up with ways to defend the Lillard-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll, and, in brief spurts Sunday, you could see why. The first time the Bucks ran it, a rolling Antetokounmpo found Jae Crowder for an open three. Later, Lillard turned a screener that led to Antetokounmpo’s earning a trip to the free throw line. In the third quarter, Antetokounmpo slipped the screen and finished through contact at the rim. When the Lakers blitzed, Lillard willingly gave up the ball and allowed his MVP teammate to make plays.

“I'm just like, we can do this all night,” Lillard said.

In Milwaukee, Lillard is the newcomer. But he may know the Bucks’ offense better than anyone. In June, Milwaukee hired assistant Terry Stotts, who coach Adrian Griffin has empowered to build out the offense—the same offense Lillard thrived in Portland for nine seasons. “It’s all familiar,” said Lillard. Indeed, as training camp has progressed, some Bucks veterans have come to Lillard with questions.

Lillard has answers, and more. The offseason was ugly, his split from Portland messier than he’d have liked. But the last few years have been challenging for Lillard, with All-NBA-level seasons wasted on a team going nowhere. He knows the Blazers tried, year after year, trade after trade, and he stayed optimistic that the front office could stitch together a team that could compete. He wished he could have won in Portland. In Milwaukee, he can.

“This is what we play for,” said Lillard. “To have the opportunity and to be on a team that's built for success. You can’t ask for more.”

Not just this season, either. For months Lillard watched pundits discuss his onerous contract, the $216 million he’s owed over the next four seasons, the $63 million he is scheduled to make in the last one. The narrative was that he won’t be worth it, that, in his late 30s, Lillard will be in decline. Perhaps. But as he exited Arena on Sunday, Lillard dismissed any suggestions that he is injury prone. And he had a message for those who don’t think his game will age well.

“I don't know why they would think that,” Lillard told me. “I don’t live a hard life. I’ve shown no signs of slowing down. I saw people saying, Oh, he gets hurt. I wasn't hurt last year. I was hurt the year before that. I chose to have surgery. I don’t have an injury history. There’s a lot of people who have been hurt a bunch of times. I’ve been healthy my whole career. So when I see that stuff, it’s almost like they’re giving me an opportunity to show that they’re wrong. I'm going to be 38, moving the same way I move right now. I promise you. And shooting, that doesn’t go away.”

The Bucks believe him. Or they want to, anyway. A Lillard-Antetokounmpo long-term future is tantalizing. Antetokounmpo chuckled at the Lakers’ decision to double Lillard early. “I’ve never seen someone double-teamed from the first play of the game,” said Antetokounmpo. “It’s a preseason game.” After racking up 16 points in 15 minutes, Antetokounmpo could see the benefits.

“I’ve never been this open in the last five to seven years,” said Antetokounmpo. “In every pick-and-roll they were denying him. When he got the ball they were blitzing him, and I was rolling and I was wide open. … With a guy like him sometimes you might not have to screen the pick-and-roll. Because his guy is really not worrying about me.”

There will be a learning curve. There has to be. “We know it’s a process,” said Lillard. New teams don’t coalesce in one preseason game. Khris Middleton is still recovering from offseason knee surgery. Defense, particularly on the perimeter, will be a work in progress. Rotations will be tweaked. Lillard is adjusting to playing with Antetokounmpo. He will need time with Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis Jr., too.

There may be some bumps in November. But this team was built to play in June. After the game Griffin noted that Lillard and Antetokounmpo looked like they enjoyed playing with each other. Lillard, for one, agreed.

“I think just having another guy out there that's just dominant,” said Lillard. “He can dominate a game and win you a game. … We are going to have a lot of options. I think the fact that there’s going to be times where he’s willing to make the play to me and vice versa, and then you add Khris to that and Brook making shots and [Portis], you got a lot of guys who are capable. I think everybody’s just enjoying the fact that we have those types of weapons.”