Lillard got the news in his own "man cave" in his house in Portland. He "started to panic a little bit," he later recalled. He was alone, thinking about packing and about all the family members who had moved to the Pacific Northwest and, for some reason, were not picking up the phone.
For Lillard, the trade meant leaving the place he'd made his home. For me, it meant rushing home to write about the effect Lillard would have on Milwaukee's offense. For another guy at the gym, who was discussing the deal with a trainer days later, it meant the Bucks' luxury-tax bill was about to rise. He seemed concerned about this.
Just over a month later, having seen Lillard arrive in the city I call home, asked him questions and watched him deliver a historic debut performance, the trade now represents a chance to be around a reimagined, reinvigorated team featuring two genuine superstars, aging supporting characters, a rookie coach, a new bench and the highest expectations imaginable. I'll never cover anything more compelling.
To welcome Lillard, the Bucks held a rally on Sept. 30 outside Fiserv Forum, a gleaming arena with a dramatic, curved roof, where they have played their home games since 2018. Shortly before the scheduled start time, they announced a nearly two-hour delay.
I arrived an hour after the original time. There were a few metal barricades, a DJ booth and not much else. Thousands of fans stood in the sun, stared at their phones and, eventually, got restless. I saw a few people on the verge of being arrested and I saw cops break up a fight. Bucks forward MarJon Beauchamp milled around, as did Milwaukee mayor Cavalier Johnson.
Four hours after the fun was supposed to begin, Lillard emerged. Wearing a faded green sweatsuit, he got out of a car, greeted some VIPs, walked through the sweaty crowd with two kids in his arms and another in front of him and — poof — disappeared into Fiserv. There was no speech, nor was there a stage set up to accommodate one. Most people who showed up couldn't even see him. I would politely describe the mood in the air and the comments on social media as "confused."
It is unclear if word of this light debacle has even reached Lillard. "As far as the city, being embraced like that, it definitely makes you comfortable a lot faster when you see that you're wanted and people are excited about you being here," Lillard said. Later that day, sitting by himself, he thought, This is where I'm supposed to be.
I've been covering Bucks media days since they were held at the old Cousins Center on the grounds of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. At none of them, not even the one that followed the 2021 championship, did I see anywhere near as many TV cameras as I did at this year's.
I am the only national NBA writer who lives in Milwaukee, so CBS Sports and local outlets often comprise the entire media contingent at Bucks games. Not this time: ESPN, Turner Sports and Yahoo Sports sent writers from around the country, and two Chicago-based national writers skipped Bulls media day to make the trip.
As strange as it sounds, considering they've been one of the best teams in the league for more than half a decade, Lillard's presence has made the Bucks a "story" this season in a way that they really haven't been before. Everyone, even those in the Bucks organization, is eager to see how this new-look team (and its new coach, Adrian Griffin) fares. Co-owner Wes Edens said that this is "the most excited we've ever been coming into a season."
For good reason. Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are a uniquely talented offensive duo – a guard who can shred defenses with deep 3-point shooting and lightning-quick drives, and one of the most physically dominant big men of the modern era, who bulldozes his way through the paint. As a pick-and-roll combination, they should be unstoppable.
When Lillard was asked about running the two-man game with Antetokounmpo, his thoughts were the same as everyone else's: "I just don't know how you handle that."
Antetokounmpo was just as intrigued, though he stressed the need for him and Lillard to get in the film room and on the court so that he can "know him better than he knows himself." There was a sense of caution in his voice, not because he doesn't think the partnership will work, but because he knows there will be a learning curve.
His words were a reminder of the challenge the Bucks face this season as they move on from the Mike Budenholzer era. His system may have been stifling at times, but it provided stability that no longer exists. The Bucks have more talent than ever before, and it's unclear how Griffin is going to put it all together. Around the league, everybody is curious to find out.
Exhibition games, an exit and an extension
A few minutes into their first preseason game together, Lillard and Antetokounmpo ran a high pick-and-roll. The Los Angeles Lakers trapped Lillard, and suddenly Antetokounmpo was at the 3-point line with the ball in his hands and a 4-on-3 advantage. The result was a wide-open 3 for Jae Crowder. He missed, but that was beside the point.
"Best of luck to everyone else, the other 28 teams besides ourselves that have to figure out how to stop that," Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. "I'm just happy we only have to see them twice in the regular season."
Terry Stotts, hired to be Griffin's lead assistant in June, only saw them twice in the preseason. The day before the Bucks' final exhibition game, Stotts, who had coached Lillard for nine years in Portland – and whose presence was supposed to ease Lillard's transition – quit. The Athletic reported that this followed an awkward incident between Stotts and Griffin at a shootaround in Oklahoma City.
At practice, Griffin repeatedly called Stotts a "terrific" person and said the resignation "caught us all off guard."
Lillard, who said that Stotts' exit "kind of came out of nowhere," had been out of the lineup when the Trail Blazers visited Milwaukee in three of the previous four seasons. When he played here in February 2021, fans were not in attendance, and neither was I. Watching him in a preseason game against the Memphis Grizzlies, the first time he'd performed in front of a Fiserv Forum crowd since November 2018, what stood out was his sheer audacity. I know how good he is, and I've seen him make countless tough shots, but I still found myself thinking, Why are you shooting that? before he banged in a 30-footer.
A few days later, while waiting for a bus, I opened the app formerly known as Twitter to a surprise. Antetokounmpo had signed a three-year, $186 million extension, despite saying at media day that he wouldn't. ("Money's not important, a lot of f—ing money is important, so I'm going to sign it next year," he said, laughing. Easily the line of the day.)
If the Lillard trade changed everything about the Bucks' future, Antetokounmpo's extension solidified it. After Antetokounmpo's media tour this summer – he claimed at media day it was no big deal, but few bought that – it seemed possible that the Bucks wouldn't have any superstars in a few years. Now they have two locked in through at least 2026.
Dame debuts, but the defense does not
When Lillard was introduced prior to the Bucks' season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers, 17,783 fans lost their minds. When Lillard put the team on his back down the stretch, Fiserv Forum was even more of a madhouse.
Lillard finished with 39 points, the most ever in a Bucks debut. When he hit one of his patented step-back 3s late in the fourth to seal the 118-117 win, all I could do was laugh.
Even some of the players seemed to be in disbelief. Lillard's backup, Cameron Payne, who has been in the league for nearly a decade and played against Milwaukee in the Finals, sounded like a fan in the locker room.
"It was tough man, he was hooping," Payne told me. "It was crazy, we really ain't got to see that Dame yet. That was our first time seeing him go crazy on our team. Because in preseason he was getting trapped, we really didn't get to see that. But he put on a show tonight. I know he's gonna keep that going. The boy looked good."
The defense, redesigned by Griffin's coaching staff, did not look good, but Lillard's brilliance overcame and overshadowed that. There was no hiding it a few nights later, though, when Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks shredded the Bucks, stunning the crowd into silence.
Well, most of the crowd. One fan, just below the press box, stood up early in the third quarter and screamed, "Play some defense!"
The thrill of Lillard's debut and the joy of Flavor Flav's extremely earnest national anthem rendition just a few hours earlier had already been replaced by frustration and confusion.
While Lillard spoke to reporters, Antetokounmpo walked up to the Bucks' giant whiteboard, which takes up nearly an entire locker-room wall, and began diagramming actions with assistant coach Josh Oppenheimer. What seemed at first to be a quick question turned into a lengthy conversation on tactics that eventually involved both Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis. Giannis seemed more inquisitive than anything, but it was strange for a team's tenured star to make a public show of such a discussion. I've been in locker rooms for years, sometimes after terrible losses, and I have never seen that before.
Alcohol and gasoline, a perfect combination
After the third quarter of the Bucks' first-round playoff rematch with the Miami Heat, the PA announcer read one of the most extraordinary messages I've ever heard at a basketball game.
Because the Bucks had reached 95 points before the end of the third quarter, fans could go to Kwik Trip – a local gas station and convenience store – and use their Kwik Trip rewards card to purchase a 12, 18 or 30-pack of Michelob Ultra, which would then entitle them to receive 30 cents off each gallon of gas.
I might just put this project on pause to focus on a deep dive into this promotion. I need to know what ideas were shot down before they settled on this one. I need to know how many lawyers were involved on both sides. I need to know about the negotiations regarding the amount of points and cents off per gallon. I need to know how many people actually redeem this and see the look on a Kwik Trip cashier's face when it happens.
Oh, also, the Bucks won. In part because Antetokounmpo guarded Jimmy Butler, which he didn't do in last year's playoff nightmare, and held him to 13 points. He liked that, and he liked the few possessions on which he guarded Joel Embiid in the opener, too.
No more excuses
After the Bucks' preseason finale, Antetokounmpo sat in front of his locker and told us, yet again, that everyone needed to be give this new group time to jell. "It's not gonna be quick. It might take 10 games, 20 games, 40 games, it might take 82 games," he said.
But no one, himself included, expected the first week to be this rough. Twelve days after preaching patience, after another disastrous defensive display in which the Toronto Raptors' league-worst halfcourt offense dropped 130 points on their heads, Antetokounmpo made it clear he only has so much tolerance for the growing pains.
"We can keep on making excuses and think that it's going to be OK, but that doesn't work in life," Antetokounmpo told reporters in Toronto.
"We have to get better. We have to play together. We have to be more clear on what we try to get from offense. We have to be more clear in what we're trying to accomplish defensively and who we are going to let attack us, because you've got to live with something. You cannot stop everything."
Through four games the Bucks were everything they weren't under Budenholzer defensively. They were getting beat at the point of attack, switching into mismatches, changing coverages and scrambling all over the place. And not stopping anything.
An intervention and a $10,000 shot
Griffin said ahead of tip-off against the Knicks to expect Brook Lopez to play closer to the basket. He wasn't lying; Lopez had two defensive three-second violations in the first quarter of the Bucks' win. The two free throws were a small price to pay for their best defensive effort of the season, as Lopez blocked eight shots and held the Knicks to 12-for-21 shooting in the restricted area.
. In short, some veteran players – no one would publicly specify who – held an intervention.
"Sometimes as coaches we are too smart for our own selves," Griffin said. "As a [former] player, it helps me relate to the players because the players are in the trenches. We watch it on film, but they live it. The players aren't always correct with their assessment, but I think it's wise to at least listen to them."
For the first time all season, the Bucks looked comfortable on defense. It's fair to wonder, though, why Griffin needed to be told that having Lopez pressure the ball on the perimeter was a bad idea.
Offensively, they knocked down a season-high 20 3-pointers, but a fan made the biggest shot of the night during a timeout in the second quarter. At every game in Milwaukee, the "Jackpot Shot" gives a fan a chance to take a halfcourt shot for $10,000, provided that they can first make a layup, a free throw and a 3-pointer in 45 seconds.
Despite his unconventional form, the fan on Friday cruised through the first three shots. Then, somehow, he banked one in from halfcourt, sending everyone in the arena into ecstasy. As he sprinted off the court, in celebration, players on both benches applauded, as did the referees. He quickly returned to a standing ovation.
In addition to the money, he won two tickets to a Bucks game, autographed merch and a $25 gift card to a local casino hotel. I once won a 3-point contest at Xavier University's Midnight Madness, and all I got was a $100 gift card to the school bookstore.