BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The Milwaukee Bucks are fully aware they haven’t looked like one of the NBA’s best teams yet this season.
The transition from Mike Budenholzer to rookie head coach Adrian Griffin has naturally had some bumps, and the Bucks are still ironing out the kinks of acclimating superstar guard Damian Lillard to their loaded roster.
But Milwaukee has won four of its first six games as of Nov. 7, despite its minus-18 point differential and 2-4 Pythagorean record. Led by superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are 3-0 in games decided by five points or less and are finding ways to win while they figure it out.
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“There’s a lot of things out there that are kind of murky, and it gets ugly at times because it’s just not natural for us as a unit,” Lillard said after Milwaukee’s 129-125 win over the Nets on Monday night.
“This is a part of it, especially early in the season, and we go back and watch film and [learn] a lot of lessons that we can take away, which you’d rather take away from a win rather than losing a game and looking back at what we could’ve done,” Lillard said.
The Bucks’ defense and rebounding, both constants in Budenholzer’s five years as coach, have been major pain points this season. Milwaukee is 25th in the league in points-against per game (119.7) and is 29th in the league in total rebounds (40.5) despite posting a season-high 48 boards against Brooklyn.
“It’s been probably the biggest emphasis in the last couple of games, where our rebounding, in particular our defensive rebounding, needed to take a huge step,” Griffin said. “Your team is going to get better on whatever you focus on. … I thought they did a great job of carrying over everything we’ve been stressing the last couple of days.”
Plus, Lillard admitted to some uncertainty while trying to adjust to his new team. Despite sitting second on the Bucks in points per game (22.7), Lillard is averaging just 14.2 shots per game, which paces to be the fewest of the seven-time All-NBA’s 12-season career.
“A lot of the situations I’m in are just new to me,” Lillard said. “Just finding where I fit in where I can maximize who I am, and I haven’t really found that rhythm. I know how to play within what we’re doing and get stuff done, I just don’t know where I could find more opportunities for myself.”
Griffin himself called on Lillard to take more shots.
“He’s trying to be a great teammate. He’s trying to make the right reads,” Griffin said. “But at the same time, him shooting the ball is what we need. At times he’s done that, but at times you can see that he’s a little hesitant … he’s almost too unselfish at times.
“We just need him to be Dame.”
The league had better take its swings while the Bucks adjust to Griffin, Lillard is figuring it out, and swingman Khris Middleton eases back into the lineup after offseason knee surgery.
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Middleton has been on a minutes limit while recovering but has closed each of Milwaukee’s past two wins and scored a season-high 15 points in the Bucks’ victory in Brooklyn on Monday.
“It feels great just to be out there during winning time when the game is on the line,” Middleton said. “That’s where the best basketball is played and where good players come through, so being out there the last two games has been great.”
The Bucks may not be flying, but that surely won’t be the case much longer. The fact they keep winning while figuring it out is scary for the rest of the NBA.
“We show flashes of what we can become,” Griffin said. “There’s a lot of time ahead of us as far as building that chemistry, but it’s fun to see it come together.”
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Lillard Trade Proves Bucks Won’t Settle for Regular-Season Success
Sept. 27, 2023
It may seem hard to believe, but it’s only been two-and-a-half years since the Milwaukee Bucks were NBA champions.
Some would argue winning a title gives teams a grace period. But life comes at you fast in the NBA world, and two straight title-empty seasons coupled with the threat of losing superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo left executive Jon Horst desperate to keep his team’s window wide open.
So after months of speculation that the reigning Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat would land Damian Lillard, Horst swooped in and acquired the seven-time All-NBA guard in a blockbuster deal less than a week before training camps opened league-wide.
Given Milwaukee’s offseason, fans might forget it finished with the NBA’s best record last season. The Bucks may have won their second title in three seasons if not for Antetokounmpo’s back injury. Yet, they went all out to land Lillard, arguably the most clutch shooter of his generation, and fired coach Mike Budenholzer right after the playoffs.
But the Lillard trade comes just a month after Antetokounmpo sent a clear shot across the bow to Horst and the Bucks that he wasn’t going to stay there if they weren’t going to keep contending for a championship.
“I want to be a winner,” Antetokounmpo told the “48 Minutes” podcast in August. “I don’t want to get stuck in this lifetime about the same story [of the 2021 Finals.] I’m tired of hearing the same story over and over again.”
That the Bucks are enjoying a long, sustained period of excellence and won their only title since 1971 on the back of Antetokounmpo’s exceptionalism undoubtedly lit a fire under Horst to act.
The deal to trade useful rotation players like Jrue Holliday and Grayson Allen will affect Milwaukee’s depth and defense. But acquiring Lillard sends a message that the Bucks are not content with regular-season success, like bringing in Adrian Griffin to replace Budenholzer, who won 69.3% of his games in Milwaukee and that 2021 title.
Lillard just turned 33 and hasn’t participated in the NBA playoffs since that 2021 season, where Milwaukee ultimately raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy. But Trail Blazers fans surely won’t forget “Dame Time,” his nickname for his ability to make clutch shots, which is what made him renowned in Portland and across the NBA.
On his way out, he sent one final message to the people of Portland.
“The casuals won’t be addressed, but the Trail Blazers fans and City of Portland that I truly love will be,” Lillard tweeted shortly after the trade was reported. “Excited for my next chapter #Bucks.”