Even if you know how good Alex Caruso is on defense, you still probably don’t appreciate him quite enough.
NBA defenses are typically built around funneling opposing ball handlers into a large rim protector that cuts off easy shots at the rim. You see this all around the league, starting with the Bucks, who have two seven-footers patrolling the paint.
The Bulls do things a bit differently. Rather than being built like most traditional defenses, the Bulls key in at the point of attack. They force the opposing ball handlers to work and fight over every screen. In their series against the Bucks, they’ve also implemented switching and trapping to try to remove Giannis Antetokounmpo as much as possible.
It all starts and ends with Caruso.
Caruso’s primary assignments in Game 2 were Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Antetokounmpo. With Caruso as the closest defender, the entire Bucks big three shot a combined 4-for-9 from the field for 10 points while turning the ball over five times.
Whether the Bucks backed Caruso down or put him in pick-and-roll or switched on him, he had an answer.
If you face him up, he’s taking your cookies.
If you try to back him down, he’ll force you to pass out of your post up for a lower-quality look.
Caruso is basically a lock-down cornerback that you just have to stay away from. If you throw in his general area, best case scenario is a deflection or blocked shot. Worst case, it’s a pick-six.
It’s rare that you see the defensive anchor in the form of a 6-foot-4 white guy, but that’s who the Bulls have, and he’s damn good at it.
“He’s the anchor to our defense,” DeMar DeRozan said. “Bringing that intensity, being vocal. I think I told him not too long ago that I lean off him for his energy defensively. Just him being vocal, he’s a leader when it comes to that. It gets me going. Even if he’s not talking to me directly, when he’s just speaking there’s a lot I take from it. Just trying to take on that challenge. Especially when you see him competing against whoever it is, Giannis, Jrue, whoever it is. You want to match that same intensity as him.
Even though this is mostly a defensive highlight reel, he’s also been responsible for the Bulls defensive rotations looking more like the 2021 version of this season’s team than the 2022 version.
The Bucks like to post up their guards and the Bulls have been aggressively doubling to get the ball out of their hands, hoping the weak side shooters won’t kill them.
Caruso is so good at timing his doubles. Here, he darts at Holiday the split second he turns back to dribble up to the wing and forces a turnover.
Most impressively, Caruso spent the better part of the fourth quarter defending Antetokounmpo straight up.
During those 18.3 “partial possessions” on Antetokounmpo, Caruso held the former MVP to 1/3 shooting, fouling him only once, and forcing one turnover in the form of a game-saving charge with 4.9 seconds to go.
The Bulls are able to get away with Caruso’s height disadvantage because of how hard he works to get into position and push Antetokounmpo off his spots. You’ll sacrifice some boards, but he removes shot opportunities because he’s crowding Antetokounmpo’s air space to where he can’t beat you off the dribble without charging through you.
Even though the Bucks ended up with points here, Caruso squashed two drives from Antetokounmpo. That’s about as good as it gets.
“We got our spirit back,” Caruso said after the game.
“You don’t have a chance against these guys if you don’t play defense. I think we’ve done a decent job the first two games. I think we can be a little better. Same thing, man. It’s the playoffs. Gotta go out there and do your job.”
As good as DeRozan has been on offense, Caruso has been on defense. The Bulls have missed this version of Caruso since he returned from his wrist injury, but he single-handedly allows this team to compete at the highest level. The Bulls have the Bucks on the ropes after stealing home-court advantage, in large part, due to Caruso’s greatness.