MILWAUKEE — When the Milwaukee Bucks traded for Damian Lillard, the first thought was that they were going to be unstoppable on offense. That’s just what they were on Tuesday night, as they cruised past the New York Knicks for a 146-122 win in the quarterfinals of the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament.
“I thought this was probably our best offensive game,” Lillard said. “What did we score? 146 or something like that? And we left a lot of points on the board too. We missed free throws, we missed some shots in the paint. This could have easily been a 165-point game.”
The Bucks shot 60.4% from the field and 60.5% from 3-point line en route to a season-high in points and made 3s. This was the first time they’ve shot at least 60% overall and from behind the arc in the same game since 1985, and they became the fourth team ever to make at least 23 3s while shooting 60% or better. All against a Knicks team that boasts a top-10 defense.
After shaking off an early scare with his ankle, Giannis Antetokounmpo acted as a battering ram to soften up the Knicks. He scored 10 of the Bucks’ first 12 points with a series of powerful drives and athletic finishes at the rim. That’s a grueling act to keep up all night long, but the two-time MVP doesn’t have to now that Lillard is around. In the second quarter, it was Lillard’s time to shine, and he poured in 14 points with a barrage of 3s.
Lillard and Antetokounmpo may not be running as many pick-and-rolls as everyone expected, but they’re starting to figure out a balance where they can each thrive without detracting from the other. The Bucks are 8-2 in their last 10 games, and during that stretch both are in the top-14 in the league in scoring, and combinging for 57.7 points and 14.9 assists per game. Antetokounmpo is shooting 63.9% from the field, while Lillard is at 47.7%, including 41.5% from downtown.
Monday night was no different, as Antetokounmpo went for 35 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists and Lillard added 28 points and seven assists.
“I really like how we’re starting to learn each other,” Lillard said. “There’s been some bumps in that process where we don’t play so great some nights, but we’re still able to win those games. Now it’s just starting to get a little more smooth. Knowing where we should be on the floor, knowing how to give each other outlets, knowing how to help each other be who we are. It’s not perfect, but I like that we’re showing improvement and it’s carrying over and you can see it on the floor.”
Even arguably the best 1-2 punch in the league needs help, though, and the Bucks’ supporting cast has been thriving. Six different players are scoring in double figures this season, which is tied for the third-most on one team in the league.
Against the Knicks, it was Malik Beasley’s turn to show out. The veteran shooting guard chipped in 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting from downtown, making this the fourth time he’s made at least six 3s in a game this season. Only Stephen Curry (seven) has done so more often.
With Antetokounmpo and Lillard demanding so much attention, Beasley feasted on open looks. None more dramatic than when all five Knicks were in the paint surrounding Antetokounmpo, and he found Beasley all by himself in the corner for an exclamation point 3.
“In training camp we kept smiling because it was so easy with our spacing,” Beasley said. “Your’re starting to see it now… I have the role where I gotta be the X-factor guy and knock down shots. Sometimes when Giannis and Dame have the ball so much, the attention’s all on them and there’s gonna be stints where three, four shots right away and I gotta knock ’em down. I’ve been doing a good job of that. Just gotta stay focused, I know my job is to defend and make shots.”
The Bucks’ defense is still a concern, but it might not matter with how easily they put points on the board.
After their destruction of the Knicks, they now rank third in the league in offensive rating at 119.2, second in true shooting at 61.4%, seventh in 3s per game at 14.5 and seventh in free throw rate at 0.282. If you’re less inclined toward advanced stats, they’ve put up at least 130 points seven times, which is second only to the Pacers.
And as they tell it, they’re just getting started.
“I definitely expected us to be great because of the kind of people we have on the team, not necessarily the talent,” Brook Lopez said. “Obviously the talent’s there, but the make-up of the guys is what’s gonna make it really succeed. As good as were tonight, I don’t think we’re close to what we’re gonna be at the end of the season.”