Eleven games into the season, the Damian Lillard-Giannis Antetokounmpo tandem remains a work in progress.
When they’re playing apart, watch out.
Case in point: With Antetokounmpo sidelined Wednesday, Lillard had his best game since joining the Milwaukee Bucks in a 128-112 win over the Toronto Raptors. As the clear No. 1 option, Lillard posted 24 points and eight assists by halftime. He finished with 37 points and 12 assists while sitting most of the fourth quarter of a blowout.
Antetokounmpo watched in street clothes as he nursed a calf strain.
It was the breakout game Bucks fans have been waiting for since Lillard dropped 39 points in his Milwaukee debut in an opening-night win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Since then he’s watched his averages dip to 22.8 points and 4.8 assists per game.
The assist rate would equate to a career-low over the course of a full season. The scoring rate would be his lowest since 2014-15. His 26.9% success rate from 3 would easily mark a career-worst for the long-distance sharpshooter.
On Wednesday, the deep 3s Bucks fans have pined for were back.
Lillard connected on 4 of 10 from long distance, 8 of 16 from the field and 15 of 16 from the line.
The short-term trend works both ways. Lillard was sidelined for two games last week with his own calf injury. In his first game playing without his All-NBA counterpart, Antetokounmpo went off for 54 points and 12 rebounds against the Indiana Pacers in easily his best game of the season. With Lillard still sidelined a game later against the Orlando Magic, Antetokounmpo posted 35 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and four steals.
Both games outperformed his averages of 29.5 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game, numbers that — while exceptional — would mark lows in each column compared to each of his last three seasons.
None of this is to say that the Lillard and Antetokounmpo are better off without each other. That would be an absurd assessment of a pair of all-time greats six weeks into their combined tenure. And Antetokounmpo’s big games without Lillard didn’t translate to team success. The Bucks lost both games. It’s also obvious that one’s usage rate will be higher when the other’s off the floor.
But it’s clear that Lillard and Antetokounmpo are in the midst of a significant adjustment period. Neither has shared the court with the caliber of the other during his NBA career. Lillard, meanwhile, is adjusting to a new team in a new city following a cherished 11-year tenure in Portland. The result has been a meh 7-4 start for a Bucks team with its sights set on Eastern Conference dominance and a shot at a second championship in four seasons.
That both have shown their best selves in recent games is encouraging for Milwaukee. The next step will be for Lillard and Antetokounmpo to each flash that form when they share the court.