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Caruso helping Bulls rekindle defensive 'spirit'

/ by Rob Schaefer
Presented By PointsBet
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MILWAUKEE — Alex Caruso's impact was felt in every facet of the Chicago Bulls' Game 2 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday night.

And that didn't stop when the final buzzer sounded.

"They (the Bucks) automatically have the advantage right now," Caruso told his teammates in the locker room immediately after the game. "Human nature effect. We win, they lose, they're gonna be the hungrier team, just naturally.

"Enjoy it (the win). Learn from it. Gotta get back to the same mentality (in Game 3)."

Caruso, who won a title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020, knows one first-round win does not a contender make. He echoed that sentiment in comments to reporters moments later.

"Go to Game 3. We gotta win three more times," he said when asked the significance of the Bulls' win, which leveled the series 1-1. "Lot more games to play."

Still, it's worth appreciating the Bulls' first playoff victory since 2017 for a moment — and Caruso's outsized role in the result.

Not only did the Bulls clinch their first victory of the campaign over the Bucks Wednesday night, they did it by, for the second game in a row, recapturing the unpredictable, havoc-wreaking defensive style that defined their early-season success, but dissipated during a sluggish stretch run. As a team, the Bulls nabbed seven steals and forced 15 Milwaukee turnovers in Game 2 after tallying 10 and 21, respectively, in Game 1.

 

"We had a long season. We had a lot of adversity. It was almost a little bit of, we were just trying to start the playoffs already. We were kind of in a hole," Caruso said. "But we got our spirit back. We talked to each other about the opportunity we had in front of us. It's the playoffs. If you've gotta get up to play for the playoffs, you probably shouldn't play. It just comes with the territory."

Caruso is the head of that snake, the signal-caller of the Bulls' defensive attack. He contributed two of those steals, two blocks, pulled down a critical offensive rebound with 35.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and drew a game-clinching charge on Giannis Antetokounmpo 30 ticks later — a fitting capper for his all-encompassing evening, which also featured three 3-point makes, 10 assists and a game-high +16 plus-minus.

"He's the anchor to our defense. (He) brings the intensity," DeMar DeRozan said of Caruso. "I told him not too long ago I lean on him for his energy defensively, just him being vocal. He's a leader when it comes to that. Gets me going sometimes, even if he's not talking to me directly, when he's speaking there's a lot that I take from it. Try to take on that challenge. Especially when you see him going out there competing against whoever it is, if it's Giannis, Jrue, whoever it is, you want to match that same intensity as him."

DeRozan's two blocks in a pivotal three-minute span between the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter provide evidence of that. So does the Bulls' team-wide commitment to focus on the next play instead of dwelling on past possessions.

Because regardless of how effectively Caruso plays, communicates or leads — on and off the court — it takes full-roster buy-in to produce the defensive results the team has netted so far in this postseason. That dynamic is even more necessary in the absence of Lonzo Ball.

That's why, when Caruso was asked if he can tell the Bulls have unlocked a higher level of defensive engagement since the end of the regular season, a smile unfurled.

"Can you tell?" he responded, cocking his head to the side. "Yeah. We can tell. I think everybody can tell."

Indeed.

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