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MILWAUKEE -- As the seconds wound down at the end of the first quarter on Sunday in the Milwaukee Bucks' 109-94 win over the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, the Fiserv Forum crowd stood up in anticipation. Damian Lillard dribbled between his legs a few times to find a rhythm, then stepped back and buried a buzzer-beater from 28 feet. 

"This is what y'all brought me here for," Lillard -- whose 35 points for the game all came in the first half -- told the ecstatic crowd as he walked back to the bench with a season-high for points in a quarter with 19. 

Though Lillard's shot only put the Bucks up by nine at the end of the first frame, it felt like a dagger. The Pacers, who looked out of sorts from the opening tip, never recovered, while Lillard only got better in the second quarter.

"He carried us," Bucks coach Doc Rivers said. "He was unbelievable. I thought he played under control, but very aggressive, which is the way we wanted him."

By the time Lillard checked back into the game in the middle of the second quarter, the Bucks' second unit had pushed the lead up to 20. Lillard took it from there. Over a thrilling five-minute stretch, he poured in 16 more points to push the Bucks' advantage to 27 at the half and eliminate any doubt about the game's outcome. 

The Pacers aren't known for their defense, but the level of shot-making from Lillard was outrageous at times. Five of his six 3-pointers were from 27 feet or further -- the NBA 3-point line is 23 feet and nine inches away from the basket -- and three were off the dribble. 

Lillard's 35 points were a Bucks franchise playoff record for points in a half and tied for the eighth-most points he scored in a game all regular season. Perhaps the most telling stat, however, was that they were also more than Jrue Holiday (33) or Eric Bledsoe (27) ever had in an entire playoff game with the Bucks. 

As Lillard said, performances like this one were indeed why the Bucks made the blockbuster trade to flip Holiday for him last summer. His postseason pedigree and ability to carry the offense for stretches, games and even entire series gave the Bucks a higher ceiling than previous iterations of the team. 

Whether this version of Lillard was going to show up in the playoffs, though, was unclear after a somewhat inconsistent regular season. A 2-of-14 showing in last Sunday's finale and an array of minor injuries -- groin, adductor, Achilles -- that kept him off the practice court early in the week only raised more questions. 

Lillard admitted he was "concerned" about some of the nagging issues, but said the time off was "huge" to get his body feeling right. Once that was taken care of, everything else fell into place. 

"His confidence is literally unshakeable," Rivers said. "It just really is. It's funny, he loves boxing, that's where we kinda connect. He's got that prize fighter-like mentality. It's almost like he was training for the fight, and then when the bell rings he seems to be ready. That's his mentality and that's how he plays."

Lillard never scored in the second half, but he didn't need to as the Bucks coasted to a series-opening win without Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is sidelined indefinitely with a calf strain. The Game 1 win may allow the Bucks to be more cautious with their superstar, but Rivers said pre-game that he has no clarity on when he'll be back. 

As long as the two-time MVP remains out, the Bucks are going to need the first half version of Lillard to show up. If he sticks around when Antetokounmpo returns, even better. Lillard, who hadn't been to the playoffs since 2021 and has never won a ring, has all the motivation to ensure that happens. 

"Last two years not being in the playoffs, it sucked," Lillard said. "It was early vacations. Last year I went to Coachella. I ain't ever been able to go to Coachella, I was playing in the playoffs every year. Just having that long summer, I was over that. 

"Being able to be in a playoff series on a championship team and a championship organization, knowing that we got an opportunity for [a title], I think that was the thing I was looking forward to the most. I moved my life and moved my career and did all of these things and made my life a little bit harder away from basketball for this opportunity. Coming into it, in my mind and in my heart, I was like I can't come this far and not at least put everything into it and put my best foot forward."