Damian Lillard’s playmaking leads Giannis-less Bucks past Suns: ‘He was … picking them apart’

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MILWAUKEE — With Giannis Antetokounmpo scratched from the lineup with left hamstring tendinopathy 40 minutes before Sunday’s game against the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks head coach Doc Rivers knew his team needed to find a different way to score efficiently. If they were going to be able to put together a strong offensive game though, the blueprint had to be simple.

“Before the game, we looked at who can score for us, like who can get us buckets, and really, it was Khris (Middleton), Bobby (Portis), Dame (Lillard). and everybody else would score off of those guys,” Rivers said after the game. “And I thought all those guys did their jobs. And not only scoring but also moving the ball.”

Behind the offensive effort of those three players, the Bucks put together a 140-129 win over the Suns, their highest-scoring effort with Rivers as head coach, to move to 44-24 on the season. Lillard tallied 31 points, four rebounds and 16 assists, which was the first 30-point, 15-assist game in Bucks franchise history. Portis scored 31 points and added 10 rebounds as well, while Middleton put up 22 points and seven assists in 26 minutes in his first action since Feb. 6.

While all three players were spectacular on Sunday, everything started with Lillard’s point guard play. While that was the first 30-point, 15-assist game in Bucks franchise history, it was the fourth such outing for Lillard and the fifth game of his career in which he recorded 15 or more assists.

For years, Lillard has been known for his scoring prowess, but after Sunday’s game, he revealed that the games in which he records high assist totals are typically a product of his mindset as a scorer.

“I always attack to score,” Lillard said. “And when the defense comes off of the corner as the low man to take away the rim, then I just make that pass.”

On Sunday, the Suns made it a priority to send help defenders when Lillard attacked. Those crowds around Lillard meant teammates were open all game long.

With Kevin Durant switched onto him and Jusuf Nurkić, Lillard’s former pick-and-roll partner in Portland, near the 3-point line to defend Lillard in the pick-and-roll on this first-quarter play, the Bucks point guard threw a beautiful pocket pass to center Brook Lopez.

Once Portis entered for Lopez midway through the first quarter, Lillard worked an easy two-man game with Portis where he leveraged his off-the-dribble threat as a scorer and created a wide-open 3 for the Bucks’ sixth man.

With Lillard manipulating defenders in the pick-and-roll and finding his pick-and-roll partners for easy buckets with just two men on the ball, the Suns started showing even more help in the first quarter. Rather than trusting Grayson Allen and Drew Eubanks to shut down the Bucks’ pick-and-roll, the Suns sent a third defender and left Patrick Beverley alone on the right wing.

Lillard held all three defenders in the middle of the floor and then whipped a pass out to Beverley.

Nothing Lillard did on that play ended up on the stat sheet, but his ability to draw extra attention from the defense opened a driving lane for Beverley, which led to an open 3 from the left wing for Portis.

“He was just, I think, picking them apart, really,” Middleton said of Lillard’s playmaking. “Mostly just seeing the crowd that he was attracting and just getting it off early. He trusted the guys out there to make the plays and hit the shots for him. But I think he did a great job of picking and choosing when to attack that big off the double-team, and then also just knowing when to get off of it and not forcing things too much.”

Lillard assisted on each of Portis’ first three buckets and Lillard’s unselfishness as a playmaker in the first quarter helped Portis find an early rhythm in Sunday’s game, which ended being significant as Portis put together a huge first half.

In just 13 first-half minutes, Portis scored 25 points and helped the Bucks build a 22-point halftime lead.

We all know that he’s a scorer and he can he can fill it up,” Lillard said. “If he gets going, he can really get going and change the game. So, he made his first couple of shots and I think just as a team we saw it and we just feed him. Any time he had an inch or if he was the next guy, even if he was covered, we were throwing him the ball and he just kept it rolling and kept it rolling.

After Lillard helped get Portis going in the first quarter, Middleton kept him rolling in the second quarter.

As he returned to action for the first time since suffering a left ankle sprain on Feb. 6 in Phoenix, Middleton only played 26 minutes on Sunday because of a minutes restriction, he was impactful for the Bucks.

“Khris Middleton, I tell you, for a guy that missed that many games, to look that good was pretty impressive,” Rivers said.

After missing 16 games, Middleton largely looked like himself. At times, he scored in isolation, including 90 seconds in the third quarter where he scored six straight points for the Bucks. Other times, he created for his teammates such as he did for Portis. But whether he was trying to score or create for others, Middleton was in control and that stood out to Rivers.

In his postgame media session, Rivers revealed that Middleton’s composure and intelligence stood out to him on a second-half possession where Middleton brought the ball up the floor and called one of the team’s favorite offensive sets before Rivers even had a chance to instruct from the sidelines.

“It’s nice, I’m telling you,” Rivers said. “When you’re a coach and you have a guy that can run down and call one of your sets, that you probably were going to call, and get guys organized, man, it’s a luxury.”

In the end, the trio of Lillard, Portis and Middleton outscored the Suns star trio of Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Durant by 22 points, 84-62. But it wasn’t just the trio’s scoring. With Lillard and Middleton running the show on Sunday, the ball kept moving throughout the game and the Bucks hit a season-high 24 3-pointers as a team.

Without Antetokounmpo on the floor, the Bucks stepped up and won. Rivers suggested that there is no long-term concern with the left hamstring tendinopathy that kept Antetokounmpo out. Rivers felt Sunday was a great day to get Antetokounmpo some rest, considering the Bucks superstar forward has regularly shown up on the Bucks’ injury report over the last few months with various ailments.

“It’s not an injury,” Rivers said. “We’re just concerned a little bit. Plus, if you look at the schedule, you have one, two, three, four, five days off. So we planted it in him and he had to do it, which we were happy he decided to do it.

Even though it is just a regular-season game, the Bucks want Antetokounmpo on the floor Wednesday as they take on the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Celtics in Boston. And now, because of the trio of Lillard, Portis and Middleton, the Bucks have given Antetokounmpo five days of rest and not lost any ground in the standings.

(Photo of Grayson Allen and Damian Lillard: Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

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