TORONTO — Four minutes into the third quarter Wednesday, Milwaukee Bucks guard Malik Beasley rose up and hit his fifth 3-pointer. Shortly after the ball went through the net, he heard about it from Damian Lillard.
“He was in the corner open,” Beasley told reporters with a smile after the game. “And (Lillard) was like, ‘Ay, Beas. I’m hot too now.’”
It was a playful joke, but Lillard wasn’t wrong. When Beasley hit the top-of-the-key 3, Lillard had already scored 32 points and hit four 3-pointers himself.
By the time the Bucks finished off their 128-112 win against the Toronto Raptors, Beasley and Lillard had combined for 67 points in their best games in a Milwaukee uniform.
Everything started with Lillard, who not only scored 37 points (9-of-18 from the field, 15-of-16 at the free-throw line) but also added 13 assists and four rebounds. Beasley tallied 30 points on 11-of-14 shooting, which included an 8-of-11 night from behind the 3-point line.
Giannis Antetokounmpo missed the onslaught because of right calf injury management. Without him on the floor, the Bucks played through Lillard, who looked just like he did all those years as the lone superstar in Portland with the Trail Blazers.
Lillard has struggled at times to find his spots and figure out when, where and how he should be attacking while sharing the floor with Antetokounmpo, but he was aggressive from the start of Wednesday’s game. He set the tone by getting to the rim early, relentlessly attacking Toronto’s big men in the two-man game with his own big men.
“Last time we came here, they kind of blitzed us to start the game,” Lillard said, referring to a 130-112 beatdown in the fourth game of the season. “So, from the tip, I wanted to assert myself in that way and got right into the game instead of waiting, and I was able to get it going.
“I didn’t even feel like I was hot tonight. I just felt in a good rhythm in the game. Just getting in the paint, causing guys to pull over, finding the open man. Attacking in transition, guys weren’t in a position to really do a whole lot, so they fouled me a lot, and it just turned into one of those games with a good flow.”
On top of being able to get to the rim, Lillard used his speed to draw fouls and lived at the free-throw line throughout the night. That continued an early-season trend of him posting one of the league’s best free-throw rates.
Like the Bucks, the Raptors were undermanned with OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. sidelined with injuries, which limited their defensive options. After Lillard frustrated them early, the Raptors asked their big men to be more aggressive and focused in stepping up to defend him. Lillard wisely used that added aggression against them by regularly splitting the two defenders attempting to corral him.
Here, he splits Dennis Schröder and Pascal Siakam before Bobby Portis can even set his screen.
“My pace was up from the beginning, so I was coming off screens hard and I was just making the bigs have to really cut me off,” Lillard said. “I wasn’t just accepting them coming out at the level. I was trying to turn the corner, and I think once they saw how hard I was coming off to turn the corner, they started to jump out there to try to anticipate me coming out, and I was able to to split them because they were anticipating that. And that’s usually how you set up a split is by coming off and making them honor you turning the corner and then you set them up. Boom, boom, and you get between the defense.”
As seen in the play above, Lillard wasn’t just beating the defense on dribble penetration to set up shots for himself. Once he managed to break through the first line of defense, he was attracting the attention of help defenders and finding his open teammates.
“You just see where the help is coming from,” Lillard said. “And at that point, it’s what you see a lot of times in this league when the ball gets to the middle of the defense. Somebody has to step up and then somebody has to help the person stepping up and somebody is wide open. It’s just a matter of getting the ball there on time and on target and allowing guys to do what they need to do.”
In the second half, Toronto coach Darko Rajaković decided to go away from Jakob Poeltl, the team’s most traditional big man, and instead try out Precious Achiuwa. Rather than trying to use a help-and-recover scheme with Achiuwa, the Raptors let their more athletic big man switch pick-and-roll actions against Lillard. And that brought about a new set of problems for Toronto.
Lillard has range all the way out to the half-court logo, and if a team’s big man isn’t prepared to switch all the way out at the level of the screen, Lillard can make defenses pay, which is exactly what he did to Achiuwa.
And while switching may take away certain advantages from Lillard, it presents other opportunities for the rest of the roster. As the third quarter progressed, the Bucks decided against bringing Achiuwa into the switching action with a screen from Brook Lopez and instead used Portis as the screener for Lillard. Once the Bucks got the switch they wanted, Lillard dumped the ball down to Portis and let him go to work, which forced a double-team from the Raptors and created an open shot for Beasley.
Lillard assisted on six of Beasley’s eight 3-pointers Wednesday.
“Just for him to build that trust in me is huge. We’re out there together every night,” Beasley said. “So now we’re building that chemistry, and we’re having fun out there. That’s the main thing.”
Lopez, who finished with 10 points and seven blocks, said Wednesday’s showing was “the Dame we all know.”
“It was great to see him in a good rhythm, comfortable out there and leading the team,” Lopez said. “He did a great job leading us offensively, making sure everyone was in their spots, getting people involved and just being himself.
“That just shows the level of attention he commands, and rightfully so, and how good he is in getting a whole team going. He’s a one-man offense.”
The Bucks will continue to work on integrating Lillard into everything they do when Antetokounmpo returns, but for one night, his individual offensive brilliance was more than enough.
(Photo: Dan Hamilton / USA Today)