04-13-2024  7:22 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
Milwaukee Bucks guard Damian Lillard (0) drives on Detroit Pistons forward Ausar Thompson (9) in the second half of an NBA basketball game in Detroit, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
ANNE M. PETERSON AP Sports Writer
Published: 31 January 2024

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Damian Lillard said his return to Portland for the first time since leaving the Trail Blazers after 11 seasons comes with "a lot of love” for both the team and the community.

The eight-time All-Star will play his first game in Portland on Wednesday night since he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in the offseason.

There were no hard feelings about the trade or his time in Portland: Lillard wanted to go to a NBA title contender, while the Blazers were focused on developing young talent.

“I loved the organization. I loved everybody I went to work with every day. And I think what made it the hardest is it wasn’t a wasn’t a broken relationship. So coming back, being able to be here, I’m in a great situation,” Lillard said on Tuesday. “The reason it all came about in the first place was for a chance to win it all. We couldn’t be at that place at the same time. So I come back with love and I’m excited to be back in the Moda Center.”

Lillard averaged 32.2 points with the Blazers last season and averaged at least 24 in each of the previous eight seasons. He became just the seventh player in NBA history to score more than 70 points in a game when he finished with 71 against the Houston Rockets last February.

But Portland won only four playoff series in Lillard’s tenure, getting to the Western Conference Finals just once. The team went 33-49 last season, the second consecutive year it finished well outside the playoff picture.

The Blazers have since struggled to adjust without their star point guard. The team currently sits at second-to-last in the Western Conference at 14-33.

Blazers coach Chauncey Billups admitted that having Lillard back in a different jersey is going to be a bit strange. But he's happy for his friend — and he fully understands the decision to move on.

“In the situation that we’re in, you don’t want to see him in that type of spot where we’re doing what we’re doing and he’s out there bumping and grinding and scrapping and clawing and getting 30s and 40s and we can barely win those games,” Billups said. “It was just a tough situation to be in for him. But he never complained about it. He’s just a soldier. He came to work and did the best he could every single time. I respect that about him.”

Lillard is averaging 25.1 points and 6.8 assists with his new team, which is in flux. Milwaukee announced Friday night they had hired Doc Rivers to take over for Adrian Griffin, who was fired earlier in the week after only 43 games.

Griffin's dismissal came even though the Bucks have one of the best records in the league at 32-15. But there were concerns about the team's slipping defensive rating.

The Bucks arrived in Portland for Wednesday's game on Monday night, and on Tuesday Lillard was honored at the North American headquarters for Adidas. Lillard has a sponsorship deal and a signature shoe with the company.

“I’m excited to be back in Moda Center, I played so many games there I recognize fan’s faces from the court," he said. "So seeing their faces and being back in the building, being back home, I’m excited to play the game and I’m gonna play the game free."

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