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Despite Alex Caruso's defensive masterclass, the Chicago Bulls couldn't hang with the Phoenix Suns

Will Gottlieb Avatar
November 9, 2023

The Chicago Bulls lost in overtime to the Phoenix Suns 116-115. It was Bradley Beal’s debut with the Suns, and though Devin Booker was sidelined with injury, the dynamic of adding a co-star for Kevin Durant proved too much for the Bulls to handle.

The Bulls got off to a horrid start, unable to react quickly enough to the swift Suns passing. Playing off of Jusuf Nurkic as a passing hub from the top of the key, the Suns were able to generate easy layups and threes via back cuts, extra ball movement and shooting coming off of screens.

With Nurkic drawing Vucevic away from the paint, and the Suns shooters stretching the Bulls defense out, the back side rotations were nowhere to be found. The Suns had a nice two-man game between Nurkic and Kevin Durant that resulted in easy dunks for each party.

Alex Caruso entered the game earlier than usual, but the Bulls were down 18-4 and Billy Donovan needed to get him in before things spiraled out of hand. The Suns went on to score on their next two possessions, pushing the lead up to 22-4.

But then the Bulls tightened the screws.

With Caruso, Jevon Carter, Andre Drummond, Patrick Williams and Zach LaVine on the court, the Bulls cut the lead from 23-6 at 5:52 to 27-20 at 4:05.

This was the second-straight game in which Donovan went to this lineup, with the group going +20 points per 100 possessions against the Jazz on Monday night.

The Bulls got up the floor quickly, even on made baskets, which helped them get into their offense early, space the floor and rattle off some points to get the game back within reach.

LaVine is prone to going black hole mode, but when he’s collapsing the defense and looking to spray the ball out, good things happen.

Caruso doesn’t always contribute to this level on the offensive end, but he finished with 19 points (7-of-9 shooting, 4-of-5 threes), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks. But of course, it was the defense that changed the game the most.

The First Team All-Defender has a stretch or two like this every game that may show up in the box score as a steal or block, but never fully capture the impact it has on momentum.

It’s a flawed stat, but in a one point loss, with every single starter in the negative (DeRozan -3, Craig -24, Vucevic -16, White -11, LaVine -14) in plus-minus, Caruso was a +24.

“I think he really understands passing angles and part of that is understanding like where the wall is, where Kevin, or whoever is guarding is posting up and then kind of like cutting down the angle with the past becomes a lot more riskier to make,” Donovan said.

Down the stretch, Caruso locked in as the primary Durant defender and did as well as anyone could. He would strip Durant when he got beat. Take charges. Push him off his spots while trying to get post position. Fight over screens to prevent against being switched off Durant.

“They were really trying to screen him to get him off Durant,” Donovan continued.”I mean that was clearly they were trying to like change the matchup and I give Alex an enormous amount of credit, refusing to get the matchup changed.”

“I tried,” Caruso said of trying to frustrate Durant.”I don’t know. I mean, even on some of those ones, like the one the ones late, he gets the shots off when he wants, you know, it’s not like I can stop him from shooting. I’ve got to try and get deflections when he brings the ball down. So just trying to be physical, make him catch it at different spots, not in the rhythm of their their offense. So I try to do my job. That’s one of those guys where you just hope they miss.”

And with the game tied with one possession remaining in regulation, he had a chance to guard Durant one-on-one. He came away on top.

“I joked about that with (Bulls assistant coach) Mo Cheeks on the sideline after the end of regulation,” Caruso said of getting the chance to get the game saving stop. “I was like, ‘if you told young Alex Caruso you get Kevin Durant one-on-one for game, I’d be pretty excited. Probably a little scared, but but pretty excited.”

Durant praised Caruso after the game. DeMar DeRozan compared him to Tony Allen.

There’s a difference between elite defensive role players and defensive superstars that automatically make the team an elite defense. Caruso is the latter. The value of good offense will always outweigh the value of good defense, but Caruso’s impact is as big as anyone on this Bulls team.

“I’m a hell of a defensive player,” he said.

And the Bulls would be far worse if not for him.

Offensive keys

The Bulls have plans to overhaul their offense by offensive rebounding, getting out in transition and getting into the paint to generate kickout threes, layups and free throw attempts. Here’s how they performed in each of those categories:

  • Free throw attempt rate: 18.3% (47th)
  • Offensive rebound rate: 20.8% (20th)
  • Rim frequency: 33% (50th)
  • Three-point attempt frequency: 30% (15th)
  • Transition frequency: 12.1% (15th)

Up Next: Bulls have three days off before kicking off a stretch of five games in seven days against the Pistons on Sunday

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