'Setting the tone': Dame's 35-pt. half lifts Bucks

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MILWAUKEE — With the clock winding down toward the end of the first quarter, Bucks point guard Damian Lillard put an exclamation point on his Game 1 masterpiece.

With a crossover, he created space and stepped back into a 28-foot 3-pointer, a vintage move from Lillard to knock down a shot past the outstretched hand of Pacers guard T.J. McConnell as the first-quarter buzzer sounded. Lillard then trotted down the court, basking in the adulation of a sold-out crowd at Fiserv Forum.

“What time is it?” the public address announcer asked.

“Dame Time!” the crowd roared.

“This is what y’all brought me here for,” Lillard yelled to the crowd as he beat his chest.

With two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo sidelined by a calf strain, Lillard carried the Bucks to a 109-94 victory over the Pacers on Sunday in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. Lillard finished with 35 points, all in the first half, to help build Milwaukee a halftime cushion that was never threatened.

“In the playoffs, it’s about setting the tone,” Lillard said. We’re going to see this team a lot of times, and you want to establish yourself, especially on your home floor. That was my mentality, to come out and try and set the tone in that way.”

Game 2 is Tuesday night in Milwaukee.

Lillard’s 35 points in the first half were the second-highest total by any player in the first half of an NBA playoff game in the past 25 years, trailing only Kevin Durant’s 38 points in 2019, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. Lillard set a playoff career high for points in a half and scored more points than any Bucks player in a first half since Antetokounmpo in the 2021 NBA Finals.

“He carried us,” Bucks coach Doc Rivers said. “He was unbelievable.”

Even with Lillard going scoreless in the second half while the Pacers forced the ball out of his hands, his teammates were able to pick up the slack. Khris Middleton scored 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting, while Bobby Portis added 15 points and 11 rebounds.

But it was the aggressive way Lillard came out that helped carry the Bucks.

“I’ve seen that on television a lot,” Middleton said. “He came out, threw the first punch and really got us off to a great start with a great lead that lasted the whole game.”

Lillard nearly matched Indiana (42 points) in the first half as the Pacers, who finished second in the NBA in offensive efficiency during the regular season, struggled to generate points in their first playoff game. They missed their first 12 3-pointers, and their 42 points were their fewest in any half this season.

It was the first time Indiana shot below 40% in a game this season.

Pascal Siakam scored 36 points, but Tyrese Haliburton was limited to nine points and nine assists, while his teammates shot 9-of-26 off his passes.

“Everybody was active, followed the game plan,” Rivers said.

This was the 10th straight postseason loss for the Pacers, dating back to the 2017-18 season.

“It’s easy to just say we missed shots and now we’re nervous or whatever,” Haliburton said. “Whatever you all are going to run with, it doesn’t matter. I just feel like we missed shots, at the end of the day. The ball wasn’t hopping. And they made shots in the first half and that kind of dug us a hole.”

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was more succinct.

“The first half was embarrassing,” he said. “No excuses. We’ve simply got to come out better. It was ugly, and we all own it.”

Milwaukee took a 1-0 lead in the series without Antetokounmpo, who has not played since April 9, when he strained his left calf. Rivers said before Game 1 that he did not have any clarity on when Antetokounmpo would be ready to play again.

So the Bucks needed this kind of performance from Lillard, who was traded from the Portland Trail Blazers to Milwaukee a week before the start of training camp. His first season in Milwaukee was filled with ups and downs, adjusting to a new team and playing next to another superstar for the first time in his career. Lillard averaged 24.3 points on 42% shooting (35.4% from 3) in 73 games during the regular season, a down year by his lofty standards.

But after getting through the regular season, Lillard said he felt the excitement this week of entering his first playoff run with Milwaukee and a chance to compete for his first championship.

“The last two years not being in the playoffs, it sucked,” Lillard said. “Early vacations. Last year, I went to Coachella. I ain’t never been able to go to Coachella.

“Just having that long summer, I was over that. Being able to be in a playoff series on a championship team, championship organization, knowing that we got an opportunity for it, that was the thing I was looking forward to most.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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