MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo wants to make one thing clear about his partnership with new Milwaukee Bucks teammate Damian Lillard.
Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP, says there’s no debate about which of the superstars will have the ball in his hands more. Antetokounmpo has no trouble handing that responsibility to Lillard. After all, he is a seven-time all-NBA player in his own right.
“This is in no shape or form any competition with me and him, who’s going to have the ball more,” Antetokounmpo said. “He will have the ball more. And I trust, I believe he’s going to find me. And not just me, he’s going to find our teammates and put us in the right positions.”
Milwaukee’s acquisition of Lillard just before the start of training camp gives the Bucks two members of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team as they try to bounce back from a stunning first-round playoff exit.
Antetokounmpo had said he wanted the Bucks to show their commitment to winning another championship as he ponders whether to sign a contract extension. Lillard sought a trade to a contender after advancing beyond the second round of the playoffs just once in 11 seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers.
This move satisfied both their requests. Now it’s up to the two of them to help deliver on the Bucks’ championship expectations.
First, they must figure out how to play together.
“I think when you’re putting winning first — and that’s the reason I’m here, is to have opportunity to win — I think you’ve got to come into it open-minded and understanding that it might take some sacrifice,” Lillard said. “It usually does if you want to attain anything. I think you’ve got to come in willing to sacrifice.
“And I also know that I’m joining his team, where he’s been and he’s done things a certain way. And I’m also here to enhance it, to bring what I bring so it can be better, so we give ourselves a chance to win.”
Antetokounmpo and Lillard give Milwaukee one of the league’s best tandems — if not the best tandem.
The 28-year-old Antetokounmpo won back-to-back MVP awards in 2019 and 2020 before leading the 2021 Bucks to the franchise’s first title in half a century. Lillard, 33, has averaged at least 24 points each of the last eight seasons and had a career-high 32.2 points per game last year, though a calf strain limited him to 58 games.
They took the floor as teammates for the first time during Sunday’s preseason game at Los Angeles in the Bucks’ 108-97 victory over the Lakers. Antetokounmpo said the impact of Lillard’s presence on the floor was immediately apparent.
“I’ve never seen from the first play of the game, somebody being double-teamed,” Antetokounmpo said. “It was a surprise. It’s a preseason game. It’s not a playoff game. It’s not a regular-season game. It’s not the in-season tournament game. Or a play-in game. It’s a preseason game, you know, and he was double-teamed. It’s insane, man.”
The Bucks paid a heavy price to make this combination a reality.
Part of the package they gave up included two-time All-Star guard Jrue Holiday, who ended up with one of their top Eastern Conference rivals after Portland sent him to the Boston Celtics in a separate trade. The Bucks don’t have control over any of their first-round draft picks until 2031.
That prospect could have the Bucks facing serious issues down the road. But for now, it’s every other team in the league facing a dilemma as it tries to figure out how to play defense when Antetokounmpo and Lillard are on the floor together.
“Which one are you going to do?” Lillard asked rhetorically. “Are you going to clog up the paint? Or are you going to allow me to make nine 3’s? I’m not looking at it as much like he’s going to have the ball or I’m going to have the ball. It’s how can we come together and be able to make it work for both of us. Because if we want to win big, then it has to work for both of us to do what we do.”
Antetokounmpo has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want Lillard to have to change his approach now that he’s on a new team.
“We’re going to let Dame be Dame,” Antetokounmpo said. “At the end of the day, if that means we have to play more defense, get more rebounds, I have to set 50 screens for Dame to get an open shot, he knows, I know and I think the team knows I’m going to set those 50 screens.”
The Bucks understand it’s going to take time to build chemistry. Not only did they shake up their roster, they also have a new coaching staff with Adrian Griffin taking over for Mike Budenholzer, who was fired after the Bucks’ 4-1 playoff loss to the Miami Heat.
“It’s no different than you come to school, the first day of school you see somebody and you all might be cool that day, but over time you really get to know each other,” Lillard said. “You get to know who they really are as a person when something doesn’t go their way, when they’re having success and you have some storms, you have some trials and time spent and you really learn each other. And I think that’s when you really come together, and you can really form a bond and start to connect.”
That building process might prevent the Bucks from posting the NBA’s best regular-season record for a second straight year. They don’t really care, as long as this season has a better ending.
“It might take a month,” Antetokounmpo said. “It might take two months. It might take six months. It doesn’t matter. We might figure it out the last game of the regular season. But the goal is to figure it out and be where we want to be when it matters the most.”
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