MILWAUKEE — The most surprising aspect of Damian Lillard’s historic debut with the Milwaukee Bucks, at least to his teammates, may have come after the game. As soon as the locker room doors opened to the media, there was Lillard, dressed in a raspberry-colored sweatsuit, ready to go. A bewildered Giannis Antetokounmpo, his body draped in ice, couldn’t believe it. Neither could Bobby Portis.
That’s “Dame Time,” Antetokounmpo said, pointing to his wrist.
Thursday night was indeed “Dame Time,” as Lillard poured in 39 points to lead the Bucks to a 118-117 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. He scored 14 of the team’s final 16 points down the stretch, chipped in eight rebounds and four assists, and set the franchise record for most points in a debut.
As far as first impressions go, it would have been difficult for Lillard to deliver a better one. This was Milwaukee’s first chance to see the real Lillard experience, and Fiserv Forum was electric as he closed the show with a series of clutch buckets and free throws.
Watching him work on TV is one thing, but seeing it in person is special. Even his teammates, fellow NBA vets who have been around the league and seen it all, were impressed. Here’s a look at Lillard’s Bucks debut through their eyes.
“It was tough man, he was hooping,” Cameron Payne said. “It was crazy, we really ain’t got to see that Dame yet. That was our first time seeing him go crazy on our team, because in preseason he was getting trapped. We really didn’t get to see that. But he put on a show tonight. I know he’s gonna keep that going. The boy looked good.”
Lillard got off to a slow start from the field, missing four of his first five shots. Even so, his impact was obvious. The extra attention the Sixers had to show him opened up lanes and opportunities for his teammates. “They have to pick him up right as he crosses halfcourt,” Chris Livingston said. “That’s gonna do a lot of good things for our offense.”
Before I could even finish asking Jae Crowder if he could feel the defense start to panic when Lillard had the ball, he was already nodding in agreement. “That’s what I took away the most,” Crowder said. “Just seeing how much attention he draws.”
Less than six minutes in, Lillard ran the floor in transition and caught a hit-ahead pass from Malik Beasley. Immediately, four different Sixers moved his way. So Lillard swung it to Khris Middleton, who fired a skip pass across the court. Beasley and Brook Lopez were both so wide open that they collided going for the ball, and Lopez still had plenty of time to reset and bury the triple.
All Crowder could do was laugh.
“They both tried to go for it because they were both open,” Crowder said. “You can only trap so many guys on the court. That was a play that really showed how much attention he draws and how we can get shots off of him.”
As the night went along, Lillard started to find his offense. There was a three-minute stretch in the second quarter where he caught fire, scoring 14 points, which had the crowd “geeked,” according to Payne. And then in the fourth, Lillard took over again.
Once up by 19, the Bucks trailed by eight with 6:47 to play. Then Lopez and Crowder hit back-to-back threes to cut the deficit to two; Lillard handled things from there. He scored 14 of the team’s final 16 points, including a 3-pointer with 3:57 remaining that put them ahead for good.
The highlight of that scoring binge was a truly ridiculous 3 from about 30 feet to put the Bucks up by five at the 1:13 mark. Lillard drove left, went behind his back, crossed over and stepped back before catching nothing but net.
Payne just chuckled thinking about it. “He’s tough man, he’s tough. They’re like layups for him, for real. It’s just crazy.”
So did Portis. “That was smooth. Lined it up, the crowd goes ‘three!’ and cashes it. Great moment for him in his first game with us.”
“I thought that was pretty conventional,” Robin Lopez said.
As if he hadn’t done enough already, Lillard then sealed the win by hitting a pair of free throws in the closing seconds. Though he’s officially been a member of the team for less than a month, the Bucks already trust him to close the show.
“Even tonight on the bench, it was like towards the end of the game — it was four minutes, five minutes — Jae, Cam, you know, they were like, ‘Dame, finish them. Close it out’,” Lillard said. “And it wasn’t them telling me, ‘you gotta score, you gotta do this,’ it was just they trust my judgment and trust me making decisions. And all the way down to the very last play where I got fouled and I went to the free-throw line.
“They inbounded it to Giannis and I was reading him like, ‘what do you want to do?’ And he was like, ‘come get the ball.'”
Lillard was, in Antetokounmpo’s eyes, “unbelievable.” It’s hard to argue with that, and the best news for the Bucks and their fans is they’ll get to watch it for at least seven more months.
“It’s a lot of fun, especially when there are so many other great players out there with Dame,” Robin Lopez said. “It’s really just a feast for us. We get to watch a lot of good basketball.”