IN THE MOMENT everything changed for Damian Lillard, nobody was picking up the phone.
By mid-September, Lillard believed the trade he had requested from the Portland Trail Blazers months earlier would not come to fruition. He was mentally preparing to start training camp with the Blazers for the 12th consecutive season. So as he sat in his home in Portland, in a room he calls his man cave, he did not expect to receive a call from his agent, Aaron Goodwin, informing him that the trade he’d requested was finally happening. But he wasn’t headed where he thought.
The player whom Portland general manager Joe Cronin called the “the best Trail Blazer to ever put on the uniform” was now a member of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Lillard and Goodwin first talked about Milwaukee a few weeks earlier, but still, the suddenness of the move caught Lillard off guard. Goodwin hung up the phone quickly to call the Bucks back and allow Lillard to process the news.
Traded. Lillard let the thought hang in the air as he sat for an extra beat.
An 11-season tenure in Portland was officially over. Lillard had brought his whole family to the city — his brother, mother, sister, cousins. About 30 family members came to Portland because of him. His three children were all born there. Now he was about to call a new city home.
How cold does it get in Milwaukee? Where would he live? Wait, training camp starts in a week. How exactly was he going to pack everything up? Where to begin?
A moment of panic started to set in. Lillard began searching the house for his family. Nobody was home. He made phone calls. Nobody was answering.
He went back to the man cave and sat in silence. In that moment, he considered the team and the opportunity in front of him. The Bucks were three seasons removed from winning an NBA championship — something Lillard has yet to do, and that Portland hasn’t done since 1977.
“Going into every season [in Portland], it was being optimistic and thinking we got a chance to get it done,” Lillard said after being introduced at Bucks media day this past October. “Then coming in this situation and knowing that you got an opportunity to do it.”
After the reality of the Sept. 27 trade set in, Lillard pulled up the NBA schedule to find the only game the Bucks play in Portland this season. Wednesday’s date — when the Blazers host the Bucks at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN — has been circled on Lillard’s calendar since then, though he insists it has little to do with playing as a visitor in the Moda Center for the first time in his career.
“I had that date circled for my kids,” Lillard told ESPN last week. “I’m going to get a couple days with my kids to be back around. That’s what made me look at it initially. … Be around my family, give [my kids] a party, see my family, see a lot of people that I’ve worked with for a long time. Obviously the game is the main thing, you want to go out there and win the game, but the things around it is what makes it a significant date.”
Following Monday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets, Lillard flew to Portland ahead of the rest of the Bucks to get extra time with his family. Upon his arrival, he learned Adidas was officially naming the court at its Portland headquarters after him. But it’s a turbulent time for his new team. Looking to capitalize on a championship window this season, the Bucks fired their first-year head coach Adrian Griffin and replaced him with Doc Rivers, who debuted Monday night.
Still, Lillard has been fond of pointing out that in spite of having to adjust to a new situation and Milwaukee’s up-and-down start, the team is 32-15 and in second place in the Eastern Conference. The Trail Blazers, meanwhile, are 19 games below .500 and in second-to-last place in the West, serving as a reminder of why he asked to leave a place he had come to know as his home.
WHEN LILLARD FIRST arrived in Milwaukee, fans threw a parade for him outside of Fiserv Forum to welcome him to the city.
Still, he had less than a week between the trade and the start of camp to pick up his life and move to an unfamiliar new home.
“That whole process was just kind of unsettling,” Lillard told ESPN. “Being away from my kids, being away from my family, there’s a lot of things that made it like a more difficult process on the court. That’s not the part that people care about, but it’s a part of it because it’s a part of me.
“Then just getting comfortable having a different role, playing with another star like Giannis, a different style of play, it was a lot of change all at once. Now that I’ve been in it for a longer time, I’m definitely getting a lot more comfortable than it was in the beginning.”
Lillard’s fit in Milwaukee seemed natural at the time of the trade because of the way his game complements Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s, but Lillard knew this experiment would take time to click.
The Bucks opened the season 5-4, with Lillard missing losses to the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic because of calf soreness. In the seven games he did play in that stretch, Lillard shot just 40% from the field and 29.3% from 3.
Eventually Lillard started to feel more settled: finding a home, getting some relatives to come stay with him and seeing his kids whenever time allowed. Since Nov. 15, Lillard is averaging 25.6 points and shooting 36.4% from 3. But even with his success and the Bucks winning — their 32 wins are tied for fourth in the league, and they’ve won seven of their past 10 — the Bucks decided to make a dramatic move by replacing Griffin with Rivers. Lillard enjoyed playing for Griffin, sources told ESPN, but he and Antetokounmpo both recognize the opportunity in front of them.
“From the beginning of the season to where we are now, I think we’ve come together,” Antetokounmpo said after Rivers’ debut Monday night. “But it’s got to be more. It’s got to be more. We have 30-something games left plus playoffs; we’ve got to keep on coming together.”
Throughout the process, Lillard has leaned on his family even more than he did while in Portland. In a way, the immediate aftermath of the trade was a microcosm of what he would come to experience this season — change, the uneasy feeling that comes with it and having to process those emotions without the same support system as close by as he had gotten used to.
“This was such a big change for me at this stage,” Lillard told ESPN. “That I was ready for — I think I’m mature enough to handle it at my age now and experience, but you learn that a lot of our lives we feel like Superman. And even Superman had his Kryptonite.”
LILLARD INBOUNDED THE BALL, down by two with 5 seconds remaining in overtime on Jan. 14 against the Sacramento Kings.
Brook Lopez received the pass at the opposing 3-point line and sent it straight back to Lillard charging up the floor with a head of steam. With a few hard dribbles as he crossed half court, Lillard raced past De’Aaron Fox, stepped up to gather himself from 32 feet away and delivered a winning buzzer-beater, the Bucks’ first since January 2017.
It was vintage Lillard. Dame Time.
His teammates went wild. Antetokounmpo embraced him with an arm around his head as Lillard pointed to his wrist. Nearly the entire team dabbed him up, laughing and shaking their heads in wonder. For Lillard, these moments are familiar. Since he entered the league in 2012-13, Lillard has four game-winning buzzer beaters; only LeBron James (5) has more among active players.
Milwaukee is 18-7 in games that go to clutch time (defined as within five points with five minutes left) this season, the best record in the NBA. Lillard has scored 98 clutch points, the second most in the league behind Stephen Curry. For years the Bucks offense has been stagnant and ineffective at the end of games, a recurring issue for Milwaukee come playoff time. So the Bucks were happy to add Lillard as an end-of-game option.
“He fit right in from Day 1, guys welcomed him with open arms,” Bucks forward Bobby Portis told ESPN. “Obviously we know he’s a top-tier talent in this league, top-75 player. Our biggest thing was just trying to allow him to be himself. … There’s still so many more levels where he can get too.”
Overall, Lillard’s production in Milwaukee has dipped. His usage rate is down to 28.2%, his lowest since his early days in Portland when he was teamed with fellow All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. Sharing the court with Antetokounmpo has resulted in his scoring dropping from a career-high 32.2 points last season to 25.1 points per game this year.
But Lillard and Antetokounmpo have both said they feel like they are only beginning to scratch the surface of their dynamic on the court.
“[Rivers] emphasized like, go more to Dame,” Antetokounmpo said Monday night. “When I have the ball, kick the ball ahead to Dame. Set more screens, roll out of the post, dribble handoffs — he wants that more and we have to do it more. Because at the end of the day, when Dame has the ball in his hands and I’m being a threat as a roller, we can cause some damage.”
Per Second Spectrum, the Bucks are averaging 1.18 points per direct pick when Antetokounmpo sets an on-ball screen for Lillard. That’s the third-best efficiency among duos in the NBA. It’s the volume of those plays that had become a question under Griffin. They are running about 9.9 on-ball screens per game, which ranks outside the top 25 among duos this season.
“It’s been effective,” Rivers said Monday night, “but it should be dominant, in my opinion.”
Last season, when Rivers was coaching the Philadelphia 76ers, James Harden and Joel Embiid ran 22.6 on-ball screens per game together, second most among all duos per Second Spectrum.
Even without similar volume from their star duo, the Bucks are outscoring opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions when Lillard and Antetokounmpo are on the court together. Just last week against the Detroit Pistons, Lillard scored a season-high 45 points and dished out 11 assists, while Antetokounmpo had 31 points and nine assists of his own. It was the seventh time this season they both scored 30 in the same game.
“You want to be productive, I want to do what I always do,” Lillard told ESPN. “I still have games and times where I feel like, man, I’m still kind of ironing it out. The thing that I think about all the time is that we’ve got to give ourselves grace to know that’s what the regular season is for. Especially with a trade this big and this much newness is happening.
“We’ve been winning through it. We’ve been finding a way. We just want to hit our stride and for it to click when it should. I got confidence that that will happen.”