Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo: A Dynamic Duo’s Debut

damian lillard and giannis Antetokounmpo handshake
© Jonathan Hui-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA landscape was recently shaken with the news of Damian Lillard joining forces with the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Basketball enthusiasts had been eagerly awaiting their debut, and the duo did not disappoint.

In their first game together, Giannis found himself “very open”. This is a testament to Lillard’s ability to draw defenders and create space for his teammates. With Dame’s sharpshooting prowess and Giannis’s dominance in the paint, defenses are now faced with the daunting task of choosing who to focus on.

“I’ll be very honest. I’ve never been this open. And first of all, I’ve never seen anybody being double-teamed from the first possession of the game,” Giannis said after he and Lillard led the Bucks to a 108-97 win over the LA Lakers.

Giannis, in his post-game interview, humorously referred to Damian Lillard as “A Little Version of Me.” This statement highlights the mutual respect between the two superstars and their shared commitment to winning.

“I feel like it’s like a little version of me,” Antetokounmpo. “A guard version. … Quiet. Goes about his business. Takes care of his family. Shows up. Practices really hard. Helps his teammates when he needs to be vocal. … And when the game starts, he’s just a killer.”

The synergy between Lillard and Antetokounmpo was palpable, with both players seemingly echoing the sentiment, “We can do this all night.” 

“Having another guy out there that’s just dominant,” Lillard said after Antetokounmpo scored 16 points in 15 minutes on 7-for-10 shooting. “He can dominate a game and win you a game. … First couple plays, they blitz me, they trap me and the guy that I’m releasing the ball to is Giannis. So I’m just like, ‘Uh, we can do this all night.’ You know what I mean?”

Midway through the first quarter, Lillard showcased his partnership with Antetokounmpo. After stealing the ball from Lakers’ Christian Wood, Lillard swiftly moved up the court and delivered a sharp pass, assisting Antetokounmpo’s transition dunk. Lillard took his first shot only in the subsequent possession, getting fouled by D’Angelo Russell just past the 3-point mark with 6:24 left in the quarter.

By halftime, Milwaukee led 56-53. Bucks’ coach Adrian Griffin then decided to bench Antetokounmpo for the remainder of the game. Lillard tallied 14 points, shooting 3-for-10, and was flawless with 6 free throws. He also contributed four steals and three assists. Lillard dominated the third quarter without Antetokounmpo’s presence and took a break in the final quarter.

They ran pick-and-roll together in the half court. Sometimes Lillard handled the ball and Antetokounmpo set the screen; sometimes the roles were reversed and Lillard used his 6-foot-2, 195-pound frame to spring the Bucks star.

“We’re going to have a lot of options,” Lillard said. “There’s going to be times where he’s willing to make the play to me, and vice versa, as we saw today.”

Today was a great first step in the right direction,” Griffin said. “You can see those guys love playing together already. And not just Dame and Giannis, but everyone was just pulling for each other.”

While the Bucks big man has helped his team win 50-plus games in four out of the past five seasons and earn a title in 2021, he has been an eager student of Lillard’s during training camp — especially when it comes to Milwaukee’s new offense, implemented by assistant coach Terry Stotts, who was Lillard’s head coach in Portland.

“I learned so much from him,” Antetokounmpo said of Lillard. “He knows how to play this game. He puts himself in position to be successful. He helps us and puts me in position to be successful.”

Lillard is anticipating the failures his new team will experience while building toward their championship goal, knowing it won’t be a linear process to success.

“It might take a time where Giannis might have to get mad at me over something,” Lillard said with a laugh. “Something’s got to happen for you to really start to learn who we are and how we come together.”

Despite Antetokounmpo and Lillard playing together for just a short span in the Bucks’ third exhibition game, Griffin expressed his admiration for their performance.

Lillard’s move to the Bucks came as part of a three-team deal involving the Phoenix Suns and the Portland Trail Blazers. The early signs suggest that this trade could be the missing piece that propels the Bucks to another championship run.