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Damian Lillard’s Playoff Return Was Worth The Wait

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - APRIL 21: Damian Lillard #0 of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts to a three point shot during the first half of game one of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers at Fiserv Forum on April 21, 2024 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Pacers were a trendy upset pick ahead of their first-round matchup with the Bucks, as they spanked Milwaukee throughout the regular season, and the only Buck who mounted a counterargument, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is out for the immediate future with a calf strain. Also, Doc Rivers didn't even go .500! Khris Middleton played 55 games! Patrick Beverley is a load-bearing roster spot! The Bucks had played like shit since the all-star break even with Antetokounmpo, and their ricketiness, age, and vibe contrast unfavorably with the Pacers' happy, youthful squad. All this made it hard to believe they could reach a new level in the playoffs. It took Damian Lillard 19 minutes to make a mockery of all of it.

Lillard's first playoff half as a Milwaukee Buck was one of the most ruthless things you'll see in these here playoffs. He aerosolized poor Andrew Nembhard, who tried his hardest to squeeze through screens and track Lillard the length of the court and get in his face at the three-point line, and he honestly did not really do a bad job, it's just that Lillard was so transcendent that none of it mattered. He scored 35 points on 19 shots in the first half, going 7-for-7 from the line and throwing two assists. He was decisive in attacking the basket whenever anyone top-locked him, though that was still probably the best coverage, as he nailed six three-pointers in the half. Each one was progressively more outrageous, and he was in one of those zones where all nine other players tensed up and kind of half-glanced at Lillard the second the Bucks got the ball, knowing he was going to try to do something silly and probably succeed. He was totally unstoppable, and he nearly singlehandedly outscored the Pacers.

The Bucks won by 15, and according to reports out of Milwaukee, the two teams played a second half. It says here Lillard did not score in the second half. Not my problem. His 35-point first half would have been tied for his eighth-highest scoring game all season, and his six threes would have been tied for third. His 35 points are the most in a playoff first half since Kevin Durant dropped 38 on the Clippers in 2019, and he set a new Bucks record for points in a playoff half. I must admit to forgetting that this was Lillard's first playoff game in three years, thanks to the Blazers being so bad. After the game, he noted how frustrated he'd been. "Last two years not being in the playoffs, it sucked," he said. "Early vacations. Last year, I went to Coachella. I ain't ever been able to go to Coachella. Having that long summer, I was over that." Clearly!

Lillard's curse is that he spent his tremendous career pulling off florid, unstoppable three-point rushes at a time that just happened to coincide with Steph Curry doing the same at a slightly higher level, with considerably more team success. Finally off of a doomed Blazers team and on a legitimate contender, Lillard struggled by his standards. The Bucks were uneven and tense all year, and Lillard seemed to vacillate between moments of uncertainty and extreme confidence, as the theoretically smooth fit alongside Antetokounmpo turned out to be a lot rougher than anticipated. Meanwhile, Jrue Holiday was starting for a Celtics team that won the East by 14 games. In the biggest spotlight moment of the season, Tyrese Haliburton hit Dame's celebration right in his face after the Pacers booted the Bucks from the In-Season Tournament, prompting Bobby Portis to, as Chris Haynes memorably put it, "passionately challenge" the team.

Playing second fiddle to Antetokounmpo is tricky, as is having to take the lead at the last moment, though the other thing that's defined Lillard's career, besides flamboyant long-range shooting, is an indomitably competitive nature. He's fearless, he's endured some heartbreaking losses, and he always plays hard, especially in the playoffs. The theory that the Pacers would beat the Bucks made sense on the page, and maybe they still will, though clearly Lillard's habit of going turbo mode in the playoffs should have been weighted more heavily.

After that in-season tournament loss, Lillard was asked about Haliburton's celebration. True to form, he was graceful, going as far as to praise Haliburton for being an intense enough competitor to talk shit to him. He also left him with a warning. "It's important to be careful and to be humble when you're having your moments," he said, "because you just never know how the tables turn and when they gonna turn." Lillard didn't so much turn the table as obliterate it.

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