NBA Playoffs: Damian Lillard’s 35 powers Giannis-less Bucks in Game 1 thrashing of Pacers

Damian Lillard teed off in his first playoff game since 2021. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Damian Lillard teed off in his first playoff game since 2021. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images) (Stacy Revere via Getty Images)

This is why Damian Lillard and the Milwaukee Bucks teamed up.

With Giannis Antetokounmpo sidelined, Lillard took on the role of undisputed No. 1 for the Bucks against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday. He dominated – at least half of it.

Lillard torched the Pacers for 35 points in the first half, his first playoff game with the Bucks. The result was a 109-94 Game 1 Bucks victory to ease concerns about playing without Antetokounmpo in their first-round series against the Pacers.

In five regular season games with Antetokounmpo in the lineup, the No. 3 seed Bucks went 1-4 against the Pacers. With Antetokounmpo in street clothes, Sunday’s game was over in Milwaukee’s favor at halftime.

Queen dominates first half

As a team, the Pacers managed to outscore Lillard by just seven points in the first half, while the Bucks built a 69-42 halftime advantage. While Lillard lit up Indiana’s defense from long range and at the rim, Milwaukee’s defense held Indiana’s best offense to its lowest point total in the first half of the season. It marked an emphatic victory for newcomers Lillard and head coach Doc Rivers, who was brought in early in the season to transform Milwaukee’s defense.

The playoff game was Lillard’s first since 2021, after the languishing Trail Blazers failed to reach the postseason in each of his last two seasons in Portland. He started with a 19-point first quarter capped by his third 3-pointer of the game, beating the buzzer to give Milwaukee a 30-21 lead.

While Lillard rested to start the second quarter, Milwaukee remained in control and used a 10-0 run to extend its 9-point first quarter lead to 44-24. When Lillard returned midway through the quarter, he picked up where he left off.

He advanced deep beyond the three-point arc for his fourth three-pointer to extend Milwaukee’s lead to 49-39.

His sixth three-pointer of the half also resulted in a foul. He made his free throw for a four-point play to extend Milwaukee’s lead to 65-35.

By halftime he had reached a career play-off high for a half. The first half total of 35 points was the highest score by any NBA player in the playoffs since then Kevin Durant scored 38 for the Warriors against the Clippers in 2019. It’s the kind of explosion the Bucks were looking for when they added Lillard last offseason as one of the all-time leading scorers to team with Antetokounmpo.

Bucks hold on as Lillard fails to score after halftime

Lillard was left scoreless in stunning fashion in the second half. But it didn’t matter. Milwaukee’s 27-point halftime lead was more than enough to withstand Indiana’s second-half effort.

Milwaukee’s defense delivered the kind of effort the Bucks were hoping for when they fired Adrian Griffin and replaced him with Rivers early in the season. Milwaukee had a Pacers team that led the league in scoring with 123.3 points per game to 42 in the first half and 94 for the game. The Pacers shot just 35.6% from the field and 3 of 18 (16.7%) from 3-point range in the first half.

The Pacers improved those numbers after halftime as Lillard cooled down from his torrid first half. Lillard had just three field goal attempts in a scoreless third quarter. Indiana took advantage with a 29-14 lead in the third quarter, capped by a 9-0 run that cut Milwaukee’s lead to 83-71.

But there was no serious meeting in Indiana. Former All-Star Khris Middleton capitalized on the deficit in a 23-point effort after scoring eight in the first half. Milwaukee would extend its lead back to 102-82 while keeping Indiana at bay.

The Bucks did all this while Antetokounmpo – two-time MVP, five-time All-Defensive team member and former Defensive Player of the Year – watched from the bench in street clothes. He missed the final three games of the regular season due to a calf injury, and his status moving forward is unclear. The Bucks hope to have him back in time to play in the first round, but Rivers said before the game that he has yet to practice since his injury and declined to give a prognosis.