The Bucks Need Playoff Damian Lillard Now More Than Ever

With Giannis Antetokounmpo banged up, Milwaukee needs Lillard to elevate his game.
Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard / Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks will be missing their superstar for at least part of the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs. On Tuesday, news broke that the team is preparing to be without Giannis Antetokounmpo for the opening of their series against the No. 6 seed Indiana Pacers. The Bucks need Damian Lillard to step up in his absence.

A timeline for Antetokounmpo's return remains vague, and we've seen the Greek Freak come back from injury in a, well, freakishly short amount of time in postseason play before. So the doomsday scenario isn't here yet. But a superstar's absence is always difficult to overcome and that's especially true for this Bucks squad. Milwaukee has the talent of a championship contender but the on-court product remains suspect. The Bucks finished the season with a 49-33 record and went 17-19 after Doc Rivers replaced the fired Adrian Griffin. In April, the team lost three straight games to three lottery teams -- the Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies, and Toronto Raptors.

In other words the Milwaukee is not some titan of a team that is well-structured to withstand the loss of its best player. The Bucks got an especially bad draw for their first round opponent, too. They went 1-5 against the Pacers in the regular season. All that means the outlook is far from positive for Milwaukee. And that's why the team needs Damian Lillard more than ever. Specifically, the Bucks need the playoff version of Lillard who breathes fire and ends seasons with long step-back threes. The Bucks badly need that guy to show up.

Lillard was acquired by Milwaukee in September of 2023 in a huge trade right before the season. It was clear early on he needed time to acclimate. The eight-time All-Star spent the entirety of his career as a ball-dominant No. 1 option. Playing alongside Antetokounmpo, a force in the paint unlike any since maybe Shaquille O'Neal, was going to require significant adjustments from Lillard.

There were times it went smoothly. Most of the time, though, it seemed like a struggle. Lillard got his counting stats, averaging 24.3 points and 7.0 assists per game. But he posted his lowest effective field goal percentage in nearly 10 years (51.0%) and saw a year-over-year drop in both three-point percentage (35.4%, down from 37.1%) and two-point percentage (49.0%, down from 57.4%). It was common sense to think Lillard wouldn't score as many points while sharing the ball with the Antetokounmpo, but his efficiency was supposed to go up. Not down.

Lillard scoring fewer points at a worse clip, combined with his well-documented defensive deficiencies, added up to a difficult debut season in a Bucks uniform. All would be forgotten if he flipped the switch and became the postseason monster his team needs.

Lillard's postseason heroics are NBA legend at this point. He has hit two buzzer-beaters to eliminate opposing teams. Broadly speaking, he elevates his game come playoff time. In his last two postseason appearances, Lillard averaged 30.3 points per game while shooting a whopping 43.2% from three on 11.1 attempts per game. The lack of deep postseason runs are glaring on the point guard's resume, but his individual performance has rarely been called into question. He has led incomplete teams further than they had any right to on multiple occasions.

Therein lies the question. Will the Bucks get that version of Lillard against the Pacers? They need every point they can get against Tyrese Haliburton and Indiana's historically high-powered offense. More than that, they need Lillard to be the guy again. The player who grabs the reins of the game and refuses to let go. In other words it has to be Dame Time, all the time, if Antetokounmpo isn't in the lineup.

A lot is at stake for the Bucks. An early exit in the postseason would be an abject failure even allowing for the absence of Antetokounmpo. Lillard is 33 years old with a lot of miles on his legs. Milwaukee needs him to muster up another legendary playoff run, or this offseason will be a long one.


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Liam McKeone

LIAM MCKEONE

Liam McKeone is a Senior Writer for the Breaking & Trending News Team at Sports Illustrated. In addition to his role as a writer, he collaborates with other teams across Minute Media to help define his team’s content strategy. He has been in the industry as a content creator since 2017, and prior to joining SI in 2024, Liam worked for NBC Sports Boston and The Big Lead. In addition to his work as a writer, he has hosted the Press Pass Podcast covering sports media and The Big Stream covering pop culture. A graduate of Fordham University, Liam is always up for a good debate and enjoys loudly arguing about sports, rap music, books, and video games. Liam has been a member of the National Sports Media Association (NSMA) since 2020.