Damian Lillard flexes with crunchtime defense in Bucks’ win: ‘It all starts from Dame’

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MILWAUKEE — As Giannis Antetokounmpo finished off the possession with a finger roll, Damian Lillard stopped near the free-throw line and pumped his right fist one time to celebrate the finish.

With his arms flexing, the Milwaukee Bucks point guard yelled into the ether of the home crowd with teammate Bobby Portis. He then turned toward Malik Beasley and yelled some more as he embraced his teammate. As Antetokounmpo calmly collected himself and made his way to the free throw line, Lillard yelled in his direction as well and gave him a high five.

In only 65 games with the Bucks, Lillard has already made some spectacular plays in important moments. He has hit some massive shots, including a game-winner at Fiserv Forum. After all of those plays, the veteran point guard maintained his trademark steely demeanor. But that wasn’t the case following Antetokounmpo’s finish Thursday night to break a 96-all deadlock in an eventual win over the Brooklyn Nets.

“It was a close game and obviously we played last night, they had some momentum, and it just came down to who’s going to make some plays, offense and defense. It was a timely play,” Lillard said when asked to explain his emotion at the moment. “We was kind of tired a little bit. Came up with a steal. As soon as I got the ball, I saw everybody sprinting out, even though we was tired. I hit Jae (Crowder). Jae hit Giannis. You get an and-one.

“Those are the kind of plays that you want to see the team have at the end of a game, regardless of who we’re playing or anything else. Just winning plays. You get a stop. You pass it ahead. Jae could have easily went in there and tried to do it, but he saw Giannis trailing, he hit him. And you get an and-one, and I think those are just the kind of plays that we got to have in any game down the stretch. It was an exciting play.”

The Bucks still needed to make more plays to finish the Nets off, but that play is what flipped the game back in the Bucks’ favor.

After giving up a 20-point advantage and letting the Nets take a lead, Lillard’s steal brought the Bucks back to life, and they never relinquished the lead on their way to a 115-108 win on the second night of a back-to-back. Lillard ended the night with 30 points and 12 assists, but it was his defense in the final four minutes that gave the Bucks the advantage late in Thursday’s game.

“It means a lot,” Antetokounmpo (21 points, nine rebounds, five assists) said. “Obviously, having a leader of our team, getting not just that steal, (but) two possessions after that, he got another steal. And to be able to throw the ball ahead and trust his teammates that they’re going to make the right play, it means a lot.

“And obviously, when we make the right play, he also gets that dopamine hit because he trusted us that we’re going to make the right play for the team. But at the end of the day, it all starts with Dame. If Dame doesn’t get that stop, or he doesn’t get the stop after that, we don’t get no baskets. So it all starts from Dame.”

In 12 NBA seasons, Lillard has earned numerous accolades, including seven All-NBA honors, largely based on his work on the offensive end of the floor. While it hasn’t always been perfect, Lillard has tried to put in more work on defense with the Bucks this season. That paid off on Thursday.

“I think, in my career, I haven’t been known as a defender, but down the stretch of games, I’ve always been able to have a moment or do what I needed to do at the end of a game defensively,” Lillard said. “And it’s not always going to result in a steal. Sometimes it might be being a low man and helping somebody else out, or just not allowing a guy that you know is going to attack to be the guy to do it and (making) somebody else having to do it or whatever.

“But tonight, it just happened to be steals. And when you’re on a team of this caliber, I think is important for everybody to just do whatever you got to do for us to win, because we don’t have anything else to play for other than to win. So, I think it’s going to happen in a lot of different ways. And tonight, that’s just how it happened.”

On top of his work defensively, Lillard also did on offense what he has done throughout his career. After Lillard poked away his second steal and set up Beasley for a corner 3 to give the Bucks a five-point lead, Nets interim head coach Kevin Ollie called a timeout to try to settle his team down. It didn’t work.

After the timeout, the Bucks forced a stop and got out of the way for Lillard on the offensive end:

After another stop, the Bucks executed again and got a similar result from Lillard:


The Bucks will not be pleased with giving up a 20-point lead and allowing the Nets back into the game, but these things can happen on the second night of a back-to-back, especially when the first game was an emotional affair in Boston against the NBA’s best team.

“I like that we kind of got out ourselves,” Bucks coach Doc Rivers said. “They took the lead. We came back. We got stops. Dame, defensively, was phenomenal tonight. All game. He’s a very competitive guy and you could see that tonight.”

And Lillard showed that competitiveness in two ways people would not expect: his defense and his emotion.

(Photo of Damian Lillard: John Fisher / Getty Images)

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