Damian Lillard says he can help the Bucks on defense while embracing championship expectations

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Damian Lillard understands he has a reputation for being an elite offensive player but not a particularly strong defender.

Now that he’s on a new team, the seven-time all-NBA selection looks forward to changing that perception.

Lillard began training camp with Milwaukee on Tuesday, a week after the Bucks acquired him from the Portland Trail Blazers to team up with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. One of the players the Bucks gave up was Jrue Holiday, a five-time All-Defensive Team selection who landed with the Boston Celtics in a separate trade.

Lillard acknowledges he isn’t as good a defender as the guy he’s replacing.

“I’m not going to come in here and be Jrue Holiday,” Lillard said Monday during the Bucks’ media day. “My personal opinion, I think he’s the best defender on the perimeter.”

But Lillard believes he can help the Bucks continue to play solid defense.

“At the very least, on that end of the floor, I’m going to compete,” he said.

“The people that I play against will tell you, I ain’t a pushover, you know what I’m saying?” Lillard continued. “I’ve also had a lot of responsibility on the offensive end for my entire career. I think playing with the kind of players I’ll be playing with here, it will also give me an opportunity to show myself much better on the defensive end of the floor.”

The Bucks believe Lillard’s extraordinary skills on offense will make up for whatever they might sacrifice on defense.

Lillard ranks 11th in NBA history in career scoring average (25.2 points per game) and sixth in 3-pointers (2,387). Although he played just 29 games due to an abdominal injury in 2021-22 and was limited to 58 games by a calf strain last season, Lillard has continued to perform at an all-NBA level when healthy.

The Bucks are counting on Lillard to help them bounce back from last season’s stunning first-round playoff loss to Miami and win a second title in four years.

“I’m not asking him to be anything except Damian Lillard,” new Bucks coach Adrian Griffin said. “And that’s plenty. He’s excelled in pick-and-rolls. He’s excelled at making big shots and helping his team win, and we need every bit of him. We don’t need him to be anything more or less than what he’s done the last 11 years of his career.”

Lillard welcomes those expectations.

During his 11 seasons with Portland, Lillard advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs just once, when the Blazers reached the Western Conference finals in 2019. He requested a trade to play for a contender.

“In my career, my life, I’ve never been part of any situation that (I) was not an underdog,” Lillard said. “From my AAU program, I played in my neighborhood AAU program. I went to Weber State. I get drafted to Portland. I’ve done a lot more overachieving in my career than like living up to what was expected. So I’m excited about that. I think once again, at my age and at this stage of my career, I think it came at the perfect time as I prepare for a situation like this.”

Lillard says he’s thrilled about the opportunity to play alongside Antetokounmpo, even though he had pushed for a trade to Miami. The feeling is mutual.

“I feel like we are just the same people, just different size,” Antetokounmpo said. “He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He plays to win. He’s built from the same cloth. How can I say it, whenever I saw him, I admired his game. I loved how he plays the game.”

Both players understand there’s plenty of work to do as Lillard adapts to his new teammates and learns how to play alongside Antetokounmpo. The superstars made that point clear while speaking to each other after the trade.

“It’s an attractive thing, me and him playing together, the kind of team that we have,” Lillard said. “But the work has to get done. I think that’s one thing that we’re extremely like-minded about, that I’ve learned in the last couple of days, is like when it comes to having some success, I’m a person that wants to get in the mud and make sure that I’m doing the things that are going to earn us that right, to have that type of success. And he is, too.”

That’s only one of many reasons Lillard feels good about his new situation.

Lillard talked this week about how much he appreciated arriving in Milwaukee on Saturday to a welcoming crowd that Bucks officials estimated at 5,000 people. The sunny weather made an equally strong impression.

“Every time I’ve been to Milwaukee over the course of my career, I just stay in the hotel all the time because it’s like snowing or something like that,” Lillard said. “Seeing the sun out, being by the water and stuff like that, it almost made me smile a little bit, like, ‘Man, it’s going to be all right.’”


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