"I'm about winning, I'm about sacrifice, I'm about putting the work in each day," Antetokounmpo said. "I believe in him. Basically, I might be here, but this is his team. It doesn't matter what people say. This is his team. He's gotta lead us, because at the end of the day, for him to feel successful, he's gotta feel very comfortable."
Antetokounmpo may have been pandering, but the first month of the season has proven that there was some truth to what he was saying. In late-game situations, the Bucks become the Lillard show, and the veteran guard has taken their clutch offense to staggering new heights.
The Bucks have already played six "clutch" games this season, defined as the score being within five points with five or fewer minutes remaining. They are 5-1 in those contests with a 125.4 offensive rating. That is tied for the second-best winning percentage in clutch games and the fourth-most efficient clutch offense. Fittingly, their lone loss came when Lillard was sidelined with a calf injury against the Indiana Pacers.
Here's where the Bucks' clutch offense with Lillard compares to previous seasons, dating back to Antetkounmpo's first MVP campaign.
|Clutch Offensive Rating
"End of the game for me, personally, I think at that time of the game you gotta have the ball in the hands of a good decision maker and someone that's a threat to the defense," Lillard said. "And I know that every defense that we see is gonna view me as a threat. I feel like I can get it done at that time, whether I'm scoring or making a play, or if I get fouled going to the free throw line. I think that's a great option for us."
Lillard has long been one of the game's best closers, and his impact was obvious right from opening night, when he scored 14 of the Bucks' final 16 points to put away the Philadelphia 76ers. Having him for those moments – especially come playoff time – is one of the primary reasons the Bucks made the trade, and it's no surprise that he's improved their clutch offense.
What is a bit surprising, though, is the extent to which everything runs through him with the game on the line. He has a 44.6% usage rate in clutch situations, which ranks sixth among all players, and is second only to Donovan Mitchell among those who have played in at least five clutch games.
"I'll be honest with you, I'm not used to it in that capacity," Antetokounmpo said. "Like usually when Khris [Middleton] or Jrue [Holiday] had the ball, or whoever in the past, Malcolm [Brogdon], had the ball down the stretch, it was give and take. They had the ball for two, three possessions, then I had the ball for two, three possessions. We can go three, four, five minutes down the stretch without me actually touching the ball.
"I'm not used to that, but through all the new things that we are doing in this team and not being in my comfort zone I believe that I'm gonna be able to become the best version of myself. I've been playing throughout the whole season out of my comfort zone… I'm happy that we can have a guy that can have the ball down the stretch and make plays, create for himself, get to the free throw line, create plays for us, it takes a lot of pressure from me and a lot of attention from me too."
Lillard's dominance and the Bucks' success has made it easy for Antetokounmpo to accept being a secondary option late in games. And Lillard truly has been dominant.
In 23 clutch minutes over five games, Lillard has scored 39 points on 9-of-17 from the field and 17-of-18 from the free throw line, dished out three assists and has not committed a single turnover. No one in the league has scored more clutch points than Lillard this season, and with him on the floor in those circumstances the Bucks are 5-0 and have a plus-30 point differential.
"He's gonna make the right play, gonna make the right decision," Brook Lopez said. "That's the smart, cerebral basketball players I'm talking about. If you're gonna mention Dame that much, I"m sure the outcome is gonna be good."
Lillard's 3-point shooting gets the most accolades, and it is truly impressive how he can hit them in such a variety of ways. Here he is going iso into a step-back, coming off a dribble hand-off and pulling up off a high-screen.
But his ability to get downhill into the paint might be most important on these possessions, as it allows him to get easy points, either at the basket or at the free throw line. His 18 free throw attempts in clutch minutes are more than any other player, and he's missed just one of them.
And while he's primarily been a scorer, he's more than willing to make the right pass.
The first month of the season hasn't always been pretty for the Bucks, but they've won four games in a row to improve to 9-4, and are tied for the fifth-best record in the league thanks in large part to Lillard's brilliance in close games. But while he's been the one getting them over the finish line, Antetokounmpo has often brought them there.
Both have had to adjust, but they are starting to figure out their partnership.
"He's the horse," Lillard said. "I want to see him be a four-time MVP or five-time MVP and have those type of things. I'm here because I've won a lot of games, I've had a lot of individual success, but I'm here to win. Us winning is not gonna look like my performances in Portland all the time, even though it will be some of those nights.
"He's the horse and there's gonna be a quarter where I jump out front and I carry the load and dominate a quarter. Or down the stretch – five minutes, six minutes, you're gonna see me take control and take advantage of that because those are my moments. It has to be a balance of us both complementing each other and leading to wins."