Damian Lillard returns from injury but slumping Bucks fall to Raptors: ‘We’ve got to take accountability’

Written by on April 6, 2024

The Milwaukee Bucks are coming off a trio of horrendous losses, but at least they got Damian Lillard back in the lineup. Before their 117-11 loss (boxscore) to the lonely Raptors on Friday, the star guard had missed three straight games with a groin strain, including a 117-113 loss in Washington and a 111-101 loss against Memphis at home. With the postseason only a week and a half away, the second-place Bucks have fallen into a slump.

“These are situations where we’ve just got to have discipline and get the job done, and we haven’t,” said Lillard, who scored a team-high 36 points on Friday in his return. “But if you ask anybody in the league, they’ll tell you these are some of the hardest times of the season.

“We’ve got to take accountability. Even if it was one of these games, it’s all right, the next two should be handled. So to have three of them is disappointing. We’ve just got to do better.”

Milwaukee has five games remaining on its regular-season schedule: vs. New York, vs. Boston, vs. Orlando, at Oklahoma City, at Orlando. Friday’s game was considered to be the Bucks’ last “easy” game — the severely shorthanded Raptors had been drowning in a 15-game losing streak, including Wednesday’s 133-85 bloodbath in Minnesota, the most lopsided loss in franchise history. But, given what had happened against the undermanned Wizards and even more undermanned Grizzlies, it was dangerous to assume that any win would come easily right now.

At 47-30, Milwaukee still has a 42% chance of finishing the regular season No. 2 in the Eastern Conference, according to playoffstatus.com. If it doesn’t get its act together soon, though, those odds could drop. The Cavaliers (46-31), Magic (45-32) and Knicks (45-32) are just behind the Bucks in the loss column.

Beyond the implications for playoff positioning, the stretch run is significant for Milwaukee because it would like to establish some kind of positive momentum. It has lost five of its past six games and has gone 6-9 in its last 15, but its numbers with its best players on the court suggest that it still has a high ceiling. Before Friday’s game, the Bucks had outscored opponents by 14.9 points per 100 possessions in 594 minutes with their starting lineup of Lillard, Malik Beasley, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez on the floor. That group has been elite at both ends, and the trio of Lillard, Middleton and Antetokounmpo has been dominant (+17 net rating in 731 minutes) regardless of who else has been on the court

Against Memphis, Milwaukee was not only without Lillard, but without Middleton, who was resting his left ankle on the second night of a back-to-back, and without Patrick Beverley, who was nursing a sprained right ankle. After the defeat, coach Doc Rivers told reporters he wished he’d have taken Antetokounmpo out of the game. “I just didn’t like the way he was moving,” Rivers said, but Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ medical staff said he was fine. Antetokounmpo is listed as doubtful against Toronto due to left hamstring tendinopathy, and Beverley is listed as doubtful, too.

Antetokounmpo told reporters on Wednesday he felt it was important for him to play through pain and adversity. Antetokounmpo did not play Friday. He also said that Milwaukee had played with “too much randomness” on offense, and that it needed to improve its spacing and play with more purpose.

“I feel like sometimes two or three guys are on the same page, [and the] other two are not on the same page,” Antetokounmpo said. “We have to get everybody on the same page. OK, Dame has the ball, what are we doing? Giannis is coming an setting one, he’s rolling. Then after that, then Dame doesn’t have nothing, what are we doing? We just going to stand around? No.”

In Antetokounmpo’s view, Milwaukee needs to “be more assertive when we are on offense, and we have to play with more aggressiveness and have more direction.” He stressed that this was not a criticism of Rivers and that he thought the players needed to “know what we are trying to target.” Naturally, this has been more challenging without Lillard.  “It’s hard because we’re used to him having the ball, him making the decisions, him coming off the pick-and-rolls,” Antetokounmpo said, adding that his absence has put more playmaking pressure on everybody else.

If Antetokounmpo is right about needing to withstand adversity because it will help in the long run, then perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that the Bucks don’t have such a tight grip on the No. 2 spot. Perhaps it’s good that they have a tough late-season schedule, too. Generally speaking, though, every team would prefer to be as comfortable as the 61-16 Boston Celtics, so it could be conservative about injury maintenance without worrying about slipping in the standings.

Looking for more NBA coverage? John Gonzalez, Bill Reiter, Ashley Nicole Moss and special guests dive deep into the league’s biggest storylines daily on the Beyond the Arc podcast.

The post Damian Lillard returns from injury but slumping Bucks fall to Raptors: ‘We’ve got to take accountability’ first appeared on CBS Sports.


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