Damian Lillard Debuts With 39 Points, Closes Out Bucks’ Victory

damian-lillard

Since the Bucks made the headlines a month ago when they acquired Damian Lillard in a blockbuster trade, they have pushed their newest star to be authentic on the court, especially when it comes to taking charge late in games.

Thus, Thursday night’s Lillard debut for the Bucks went just how the team had planned. In his debut game with the team, he scored 39 points, setting a record. He also scored the team’s final 11 points in the fourth quarter, helping Milwaukee defeat the Philadelphia 76ers 118-117 to start the season.

“I’ve had enough conversations with guys, especially with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], that I came in knowing what was expected of me,” Lillard said after the game. “They’re encouraging me to be the person to take control, make decisions and decide what’s going to happen in those moments.”

When Lillard took over with four minutes left, Milwaukee was behind 104-102. In the last four minutes, he scored 14 points, almost matching the Sixers’ total of 15 points from one player.

With 1:13 left, Lillard iced the game in his trademark style, putting it all but out of reach with a 30-foot step-back 3-pointer over Kelly Oubre Jr.

“That’s a look that I’ll take seven days a week,” Lillard said. “That was a comfort shot.”

“At the end of the day, he had the hot hand and you’ve got to keep on feeding it. You’ve got to keep going with what works,” said Antetokounmpo, who finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds. “A guy that can make plays down the stretch. A guy that’s going to lead the team. A guy that’s going to make shots, put us in the right position. A guy that’s going to be aggressive throughout the whole game, create for himself. He was unbelievable today.”

Since the beginning of the 2018–19 season, the Bucks have won more games during the regular season than any other team, making them one of the top teams in the NBA. However, their offensive efficiency in crucial situations has never been a strength; in the 2022–2023 season, they ranked 18th in the NBA in terms of offensive rating.

Think about how Lillard performed in the closing minutes of Thursday night’s game versus the team as a whole, which scored 16 points in the fourth quarter of Milwaukee’s Game 5 loss to the Miami Heat, which concluded the Bucks’ season last year.

“I’m going to do what I do, and I want you to do what you do; you close out games,” Lillard recalled Antetokounmpo telling him in one of their first conversations after the trade. “We know that’s what you do, and that’s what we need you to do here.”

Lillard remarked that it still seems strange to him that he did not start the season with the Portland Trail Blazers for the first time in his 11-year career. Lillard had been accustomed to visiting the arena on game days, knowing every member of the staff, and even identifying long-time season ticket holders in the bleachers.

He acknowledged that because he was still getting used to his new surroundings, Thursday’s opener felt nearly like a road game.

Lillard saw another change once the game started, and this one was a good one. He felt that he had to take on all the responsibilities for years in Portland, calling the plays and pointing out what was going on the floor.

However, he saw that Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, two veterans, were controlling possession and traffic early in the first quarter, which allowed him to simply feed Antetokounmpo and let the two-time MVP do his job.

Not until the Bucks require him to be, anyway. If the pregame atmosphere seemed strange to Lillard, the way the game concluded—with the ball in his hands and his team winning—felt comfortable.