The Milwaukee Bucks broke out of a late slump in a big way Thursday, blasting the Eastern Conference leaders Boston Celtics by 33 points in a matchup that is likely to be a preview of the conference finals. The Bucks entered that contest losing four of their last five games but were able to catch Boston off guard on the second night of a back-to-back set after the Celtics played a tough overtime game against the Timberwolves Wednesday.
Star point guard Damian Lillard halted his own stretch of poor play in the win, putting up 21 points on 50% shooting from the floor after not playing in Milwaukee’s 16-point loss to the Jazz. Lillard was in a seven-game stretch where he averaged 22 points and 6.3 assists per game on 40.5% shooting overall and 23.7% shooting from deep. This slump came after a seven-game winning streak for the Bucks where Lillard shot 44.1% overall and 43.9% from deep, averaging 27.1 points and 7.1 assists per game.
Thursday’s result shouldn’t move the needle for Milwaukee’s status as a contender or position in the East hierarchy. Neither should the four losses in five games prior to the win over Boston. By adding Lillard, the Bucks can truly disregard any regular season results.
As long as Giannis Antetokounmpo plays enough games, the Bucks are going to be a playoff team and a top-4 seed in the East. The Bucks went 58-24 last season, and are on pace for 56 wins this season. Antetokounmpo is playing like a league MVP, averaging 31.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game shooting 61% from the floor. He’s a potential value bet to win the award, currently listed at +1100 on DraftKings Sportsbook.
Antetokounmpo’s MVP campaign aside, the Bucks traded for Damian Lillard to win a title. Sending Jrue Holiday back in the deal is just the cost of doing business, and it wasn’t an insignificant one. Holiday and Antetokounmpo were the most successful two-man lineup a season ago for the Bucks at +383 in 1222 minutes. The Holiday-Antetokounmpo-Khris Middleton three-man lineup was +57 in 236 minutes, largely because Middleton dealt with nagging injuries.
That isn’t to say Lillard has been bad for Milwaukee. The Lillard-Antetokounmpo pairing is the best two-man combination for the Bucks this year at +179 in 924 minutes. When we extrapolate that out to 1,222 minutes, that comes out to +236. Not quite as good as the Holiday-Antetokounmpo combination, but still a very good outcome. The Lillard-Antetokounmpo-Middleton three-man lineup is +150 in 478 minutes together.
The endgame for Milwaukee is postseason success, and that’s where Lillard is expected to provide the big upgrade. The Bucks found out the hard way last year what happens to the offense when Antetokounmpo isn’t on the floor. Holiday was instrumental in helping the team win the 2021 title but that was largely due to his defensive skills. Here’s how Holiday and Lillard stack up when it comes to the postseason.
Holiday (3 postseasons with Bucks): 40 games, 39.2 minutes per game, 17.9 ppg, 7.9 apg, 5.8 rpg, 39.6 FG%, 30.4 3pt%
Lillard (8 postseasons with Trail Blazers): 61 games, 40.3 minutes per game, 25.7 ppg, 6.2 apg, 4.5 rpg, 41.2 FG%, 36.9 3pt%
The Bucks were down big defensively and overall when it comes to net rating when Antetokounmpo missed time in the first round against the Heat. By adding Lillard, who increased Portland’s offensive rating by 28 points when he was on the floor in the last postseason, Milwaukee is hoping to avoid the drop that comes when Antetokounmpo sits. Lillard isn’t solving any of the team’s defensive struggles but he’s going to keep the offense humming.
Milwaukee’s net rating is well below Boston and Philadelphia, and sits just ahead of New York. However, the Bucks are +210 to win the East and +475 to win the NBA title on DraftKings Sportsbook, right up there with Boston and Denver despite the net rating being down. That’s the power of adding a proven playoff performer like Lillard.
The Bucks have gone through some rough stretches and likely will have a few more as Lillard’s shooting percentages fluctuate. It’s irrelevant over 82 games. The true value of this trade for Milwaukee will be determined from April onwards.