Dame Lillard finally played like the superstar the Bucks needed
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Dame Lillard finally played like the superstar the Bucks needed

It is tempting to say that the Milwaukee Bucks turned a corner on Monday night. Without Giannis Antetokounmpo in the lineup they were still able to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers, 113-106, and remain undefeated since the All-Star break. Damian Lillard did not play his best game of the season in Antetokounmpo’s absence, but it was damn close.

Lillard scored 41 points on 54.5/44.4/100 shooting splits, which included 13 free throws. He had not attempted 10 free throws in a game since Jan. 24. When he records double-digit free-throw attempts the Bucks are 17-2 on the season. Lillard has never averaged double-digit attempts from the foul line for an entire season, but those 13 attempts on Monday were evidence that he was taking the ball to the basket far more often than he has throughout most of his first season with the Bucks.

While the 2024 All-Star Game MVP is known as “Logo Lillard,” his scoring at the rim is just as important as his long-range shooting. For the 2023-24 season, Lillard has scored only 28.2 percent of his points in the paint. That is his lowest percentage since the 2020-21 season.

The peak of Lillard’s career is 2017-2021. In those four seasons he was named first-team All-NBA once and second-team three times. During that span, he attempted fewer than 30 percent of his field goals from five feet or closer only once. Lillard is currently attempting 28.2 percent of his shots from that distance.

The Bucks traded for Lillard to help space their offense, but that was not the only reason. He is one of the most dynamic performers with the ball in the NBA. Simply clearing out space for Antetokounmpo to ravage the lane is not adequate value for Lillard’s max salary.

Lillard was acquired to be the offensive threat the Bucks have not had since Antetokounmpo became one of the best five players in the league. Khris Middleton is a nice secondary-option, but Lillard is game changing. Milwaukee has the fifth-best record in the NBA — and currently occupies the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference — but Lillard’s performance the first half of the season would have resulted in him being a borderline All-Star had he not been voted a starter. He was not voted as a top-two guard by the fans, players, or media. The math just happened to work in his favor.

But on Monday night, Lillard showed his ability to play as well as any guard in the NBA on any given night. Half of his shot attempts were in the paint against the long arms and big hands of the Clippers’ defense. He converted on 63.6 percent of those attempts. His 44.4 percent from the 3-point line was significantly higher than his average for the season going into the game — the third-worst of his career at 34.2 percent. In having the offense to himself, he was able to assert himself against one of the better teams in the NBA. Lillard scored 15 points in the first quarter, including three makes from behind-the-arc.

He said recently that the transition to Milwaukee has been hard. The Portland Trail Blazers traded him to the Bucks on Sept. 27. There are serious issues in his personal life and suddenly moving his family from the West Coast to the location of his new job was not a realistic endeavor since.

Of the maximum seven months that he would work for the Bucks this season, half of it would be spent on the road. Lillard talked to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix last week about how lonely he is in Milwaukee. If he had experienced a real midwestern winter, he might be shooting 32 percent from three on the season.

With his new team depending on him Monday, Portland Dame made an appearance. I am aware that the Bucks were having a successful two weeks before their new star had this great night, but Doc Rivers should implement what worked in this win throughout the rest of the season. Specifically, Lillard needs as many opportunities as possible to attack the rim even with Antetokounmpo in the lineup. He is not a floor spacer. He is one of the best offensive players in the league. When Monday night becomes a consistent part of the Bucks game plan, then they will have truly turned a corner.

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