Alex Caruso epitomized what the Chicago Bulls had been missing amid a tough skid.
Caruso was cleared to rejoin the team from a left foot sprain, then entered COVID-19 health and safety protocols Jan. 5, thwarting his initial return. Back on the court Wednesday night at the United Center, Caruso served as an antidote against a lengthy Cleveland Cavaliers squad. A four-minute stretch in the third quarter highlighted Caruso’s value.
Facing a minutes restriction because of his long layoff, Caruso made the most of his 22 minutes off the bench and got better as the game progressed. He helped the Bulls build a nine-point lead in the waning minutes of the third quarter by hitting a pair of free throws, drawing an offensive foul, drilling a 3-pointer from the corner in front of the Cavs bench for his first bucket of the game and driving for a layup off an inbound sequence.
Caruso’s ability to push the ball in transition and move the ball in the half-court offense helped the Bulls to a 117-104 victory, ending a four-game losing streak. He finished with nine points, three rebounds and two assists and was plus-18.
“I was just so excited, like I was trying to focus to lock in and be prepared to play because I knew they’re a good team,” Caruso said. “But I was just smiling in the back, putting my jersey on and tying my shoes.”
DeMar DeRozan credited Caruso’s leadership and voice in the locker room, which the Bulls feed off of.
“He’s kind of like that one college professor that’s always preaching a thesis or something — that’s AC,” said DeRozan, who scored a game-high 30 points.
The Bulls are at their best when pushing the ball in transition. With key starters and rotation pieces still sidelined, there have been more opportunities for players such as rookie guard Ayo Dosunmu, who got the start against the Cavaliers. Dosunmu finished with 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting and eight assists in a team-high 39 minutes and hit two big 3s in the fourth as the Bulls held off Cleveland’s rally.
“The good and the bad moments that we had, you build resiliency because you build a more in-depth togetherness that goes a long way,” DeRozan said. “We all need it, and that’s why I told the guys when we had those tough couple games, let’s learn from it, let’s build from it and understand how to keep building that resiliency that we’re going to need. Everything is not going to be perfect.”
After the morning shootaround, Caruso acknowledged his boredom during a frustrating two weeks while dealing with unfortunate circumstances.
“Stuff happens, adversity hits, we’ve just got to go with it,” he said. “We can’t do anything about it. We can feel sorry for ourselves, take a second to think about what could have been or what was and what could be — it takes away from what you’re looking at right now, which is trying to win games, and the most important thing for us is just finding a way to win.”
The versatile guard gave the banged-up Bulls a boost, especially on the defensive end, in his first game since Dec. 20. Heading into the game, coach Billy Donovan didn’t anticipate Caruso would be at the same level pre-injury and COVID protocols. Even so, Donovan was impressed by Caruso’s performance.
“We did a better job defensively,” Donovan said. “He certainly is really, really good. Playing the elbows, playing the post, we generally have him on bigger people, especially with a team like this. I thought all the guys’ activity was really good.
“Alex’s ability to communicate on defense, to recognize when to switch, when to do certain things, when to front the post, recognizing what’s coming and anticipate things — so him coming back certainly helps our defense and makes us better defensively, there’s no question about that.”
Beyond missing time for COVID-19 protocols, Caruso was hampered by the foot sprain and right hamstring soreness in early December. The combination of ailments limited him to playing in only three of the Bulls’ past 18 games.
“For a guy who’s 27, for almost 20 years of my life I played basketball in the winter,” Caruso said. “I’ve been structured, wired from January, December, I’m playing basketball and competing and playing. So to not have that was a struggle for me, but I’m glad to be back, watching games and playing games in person and not at home.
“I haven’t had my competitor release in a while. ... The only way to really get back in shape is just dive into games and play.”
Former Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen scored a season-high 28 with five 3-pointers to lead the Cavs in his first regular-season game back at the United Center since getting traded in the offseason as part of a three-team deal.
Caruso’s absence had been felt defensively, particularly as the Bulls have weathered injuries in the frontcourt and to guard Zach LaVine. In the meantime, Dosunmu stepped up, at times tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player.
Caruso hasn’t been surprised by Dosunmu’s development, citing his physical gifts and learning how to use them at the NBA level.
“Anybody I’ve ever met from Chicago that’s played basketball has that mentality,” Caruso said. “It just comes with being from here. He’s got the intangibles. He’s got the size and range and competitiveness about learning how to play defense in the NBA without fouling guys, driving guys. He’s starting to figure it out.”
After winning nine consecutive games between Dec. 19 and Jan. 7, the Bulls entered Wednesday having lost five of six.
“I don’t like losing regardless if I’m playing or not,” Caruso said. “This is my team. I’m part of the team. I want them to win whether I’m playing or not playing. We didn’t have much success the last couple games, so I’m just itching to get back and win.”
While Caruso is back, the Bulls are still missing starting guards Lonzo Ball (left knee bruise) and LaVine (left knee). Donovan said both players will not travel on the upcoming three-game trip and instead focus on their rehab.
LaVine is responding well to therapy, Donovan said, and has been back on the court shooting free throws and doing strength training. The Bulls don’t have a return date for LaVine, but Donovan was encouraged with how much better he feels since suffering the injury Friday.
Donovan also did not have a timeline for Ball’s return. The coach said it would depend on how Ball responds to treatment, though they haven’t reached the point at which surgery would be a possibility.
“The biggest thing right now is what are the steps that we can do to try to get him back and get him healthy,” Donovan said. “I haven’t been told what any next steps are going to be.”