Blazers spoil Damian Lillard’s return to Portland; now it’s time for Bucks to ‘work’


PORTLAND, Ore. — Everything had fallen into place for the perfect cinematic ending to Damian Lillard’s first game in Portland after being traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in October.

The Bucks were down one with 17.6 seconds left. The Trail Blazers did not have any fouls to give, and they would need to play the Bucks straight up defensively. Bucks coach Doc Rivers, coaching his second game for Milwaukee, drew up a play to put the ball in Lillard’s hands.

There was one problem, though: The Blazers had no interest in such a fairy-tale ending, even for the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

On the play that ended up deciding the game, Lillard inbounded the ball to center Brook Lopez in the middle of the floor just above the 3-point line. As Lillard stepped back inbounds, Giannis Antetokounmpo snuck inside a defender and freed Lillard as the guard whipped around a dribble handoff from Lopez. With two smaller defenders caught on screens, Blazers center Deandre Ayton picked up Lillard.

With a head of steam, Lillard bumped Ayton and took a dribble backward to set up a stepback jumper. The move created plenty of space from Ayton, but as Lillard lined up the 3, Portland point guard Malcolm Brogdon sprang back into the play and took away the open look.

Lillard then whipped a cross-court pass to Lopez, who was open on the right wing. But Blazers wing Toumani Camara flew out at Lopez as he lined it up and forced Lopez to pump fake and take one dribble to his left before attempting a shot.

Lopez’s 3 missed off the front of the rim, and Jerami Grant grabbed the rebound. After a Portland timeout, the Trail Blazers inbounded the ball to Grant, who was immediately fouled. He made both free throws, and the Blazers won 119-116 in Lillard’s first game in Portland as a visitor.

“Obviously, there are multiple looks,” Lopez said of the play, which the Bucks also ran to set up a Lillard game-winner against the Sacramento Kings this season. “We wanted to get Dame coming off initially, and we had Giannis rolling. It came back to me, and they closed hard. I put it down and out of my peripheral. I thought Malcolm was a bit more up on Dame than he really was, so I just stepped into it and took my shot.”

While Lillard knew he had an opportunity to make another big shot in front of the fans who had cheered him for the first 11 years of his career, the Trail Blazers knew the same thing. They did everything in their power to keep Lillard from getting off that shot, and it worked.

“I came back, I got the ball, I came off the screen,” Lillard said. “I was looking to get downhill first because I didn’t want to just settle. And I was able to get some space from Ayton, and I kind of stepped back behind the 3-point line, but my man was still chasing. And I knew he was going to try to get a rearview contest and maybe have a chance to block it.

“I just welcomed it, and I threw it back. And Brook was making that shot all night. I think if you can get a quality shot from a good shooter, you make that play. So, I threw it back to him just because, at that time, I felt it was the right play. He just missed it.”

Lillard was the Bucks’ second leading scorer Wednesday with 25 points, six rebounds and seven assists. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 27 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Khris Middleton tallied 21 points and eight assists, while Lopez scored 19 points and was 4-of-10 on 3-point attempts. One more triple would have given the Bucks the perfect ending to an emotional day, but instead, Lillard’s first game back in Portland ended on a sour note.

That did not come as a surprise to Rivers, who has been part of these “return” games for NBA legends in the past. Rivers was coaching the Boston Celtics when Timberwolves legend Kevin Garnett made his first trip back to Minnesota as a member of the visiting team. Rivers also coached the Orlando Magic as Patrick Ewing made his second trip back to New York in something other than a Knicks jersey. (Ewing also visited New York the season before in 2001 as a member of the Seattle SuperSonics.)

“These games are tough games,” Rivers said. “The home team always wants to beat the star coming back. That’s 100 percent. You can see in their jubilation after the game.”


A Portland fans shows off a very different Damian Lillard jersey during Wednesday’s game. (Troy Wayrynen / USA Today)

Given the result of that final play, there was some postgame discussion about how it unfolded.

“The look was for Dame, let me say that,” Rivers said. “He was coming off, we wanted him to take that or be aggressive, but Dame made the right play. That’s one of the things we’re talking about. If the guy’s wide open, throw it to him. I haven’t seen the film so I have to watch it. I thought Brook was open for the 3, and then he pump-faked. That’s probably when he should’ve got back off the ball.”

After getting another chance to look at it after the game, Lopez agreed with his coach’s assessment but still felt good about his decision.

“Dame was a bit more open than I thought he was, but I’m definitely confident in the shot,” Lopez said.

The Bucks (32-16) have now lost their first two games under Rivers and are one game ahead of the streaking New York Knicks for second place in the Eastern Conference. Wednesday’s game was the second in a five-game road trip through the Western Conference that still has stops in Dallas on Saturday, Utah on Sunday and Phoenix on Tuesday. A game-winner from Lillard would have been the perfect capper to what had been a lovely celebration of Lillard’s 11 seasons in Portland.

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GO DEEPER

Damian Lillard’s Portland return filled with love and appreciation: ‘I could feel it’

Lillard was the second player announced in the starting lineup Wednesday, and his introduction inspired a minute-long standing ovation from the sellout crowd at Moda Center before the Blazers’ public address announcer got back to the rest of the Bucks, who were greeted with customary boos for opponents.

“I just felt appreciated,” Lillard said. “I think that’s what it comes down to: You feel the appreciation and the love. I just kind of stood in it, like man, this is a big deal. Just to take that moment and to have everybody in the building show me that type of love … it’s an acknowledgment of a lot of things during my time here, so I appreciated it.”

The Blazers also honored Lillard with two tribute videos. The first video focused on Lillard’s exploits on the court, while the second focused on the work Lillard did in the community. Both videos inspired additional standing ovations.

After the game, Antetokounmpo, who has now spent 11 seasons in Milwaukee, explained why he found himself moved by the adoration shown for Lillard.

“This is why we play the game,” Antetokounmpo said. “Dame has been here for 11 years, literally built this house, as far as I can remember. From the first moment I came into the league, coming to Portland, you had to go through Dame in order for you to get a win. It was very, very hard. There’s some places in the NBA — you can ask other players — that it’s hard to get a win, and I thought Portland was always one of those places. Just from the way he played, the energy he played with, the way he carried himself, the way he led his teammates.

“Seeing something like that, coming out for warm-ups and then you see a standing ovation for him when they called his name and people showed appreciation and love, it’s big. Sometimes, you go through every single day, you do your job, you go home, you come again, you do your job, you play a game, every day goes by and sometimes, people don’t really show appreciation. Being able to see my teammate get that type of love, that type of appreciation … that’s why we play the game of basketball. And I was very, very happy for him. And I know that he was happy.”

In the end though, the game didn’t end how Lillard or the Bucks wanted. The Bucks will try to say it is just one of 82 games this season, and they will be correct in that assessment, but it is also one of the 82 that ended up in the loss column. And the Bucks need to try to get their footing with their new coach after two losses to start their toughest road trip of the season.

“Coming to Portland and people showing him love, he deserves it,” Antetokounmpo said of Lillard’s special night. “He earned every single thing that is coming his way. Now we just have to finish the last thing that he wants and I want and the whole group here wants. We want to be the last team standing, but we gotta work.

“It’s enough talking; we gotta work.”

(Top photo of Damian Lillard and Deandre Ayton: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)





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