'I just love hooping': Caruso draws praise after impressive defensive effort against Phoenix

Alex Caruso would have been in eighth grade when Kevin Durant made his NBA debut with the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007.

Knowing Caruso's penchant for playing defense, he probably watched Durant back then thinking about how he'd guard the 6-foot-10 superstar if given the chance.

"I joked about that with (Bulls assistant) Mo Cheeks on the sideline after the end of regulation," said Caruso, listed at 6-4 on the roster. "If you had told young Alex Caruso you have to guard Kevin Durant one-on-one for a game, he would have been pretty excited. Probably a little scared, but pretty excited.

"(Durant) showed me some love after the game and that's what it's all about. I think part of that is he recognizes I've gotten better and try to make it difficult for him."

Caruso's defense was a highlight of the Bulls' overtime loss to Phoenix on Wednesday. The Bulls gave themselves plenty of chances down the stretch, but couldn't convert enough of them. During the final 9:40 in regulation and overtime, the Suns recorded just 2 field goals - a corner 3-pointer by Keita Bates-Diop and then the game-winning layup by Jusuf Nurkic with 7.1 seconds left.

Durant managed just 4 free throws during that stretch, and only one of the fouls was committed by Caruso. Early in overtime, Caruso was visibly agitated when the Suns finally managed to set a successful screen and Nikola Vucevic was called for the foul. Otherwise, Caruso did an impressive job of sticking with the assignment.

"He's a phenomenal player," Durant said after the game. "I don't want to even call him a role player; he's a guy you can plug with any lineup and he will make the right reads and right plays on the defensive and offensive side. The Bulls are lucky to have him."

Besides the solid defense, Caruso scored 19 points, his second-highest scoring game in a Bulls uniform, and hit 4 of 5 shots from 3-point range. After the game, Caruso had an explanation for how he brings defensive energy every night.

"I love to play basketball. I just love hooping," he said. "That's what I did growing up. I played at the park, I played high school, college, rec center, with my buddies. I'll play anywhere.

"I just love to play basketball and I'm lucky enough and fortunate enough to have that be my job. So I try to keep that awareness and perspective to help me go out there and do that."

Caruso was such a hooper, his neighborhood court was renamed in his honor last year. Caruso grew up in College Station, Tex., his parents both employed by Texas A&M, and the basketball court at Castlegate Park has a plaque commemorating Caruso's career.

After playing four years for the Aggies, Caruso wasn't drafted and spent a year in the G-League before debuting with the Lakers in 2017.

"To get into the league, I had to fight for minutes," he said. "Even in L.A. with (now Suns coach) Frank (Vogel) that year we won the chip (2019-20), I got a DNP the first night. I tried to fight and scrap to get minutes, turn five minutes into 10 minutes.

"Doing those things, playing defense, being spaced right, helping the teammates be better. Then slowly but surely, worked on my game, had more confidence offensively and now I think I'm pretty dynamic both ways."

The Bulls are off to a disappointing 3-6 start, but Caruso pointed out if narrow losses against Phoenix and Brooklyn had gone the other way, they'd be above .500 and feeling much better about themselves.

As it stands, the Bulls are showing some positive signs, starting with Caruso's improved 3-point shooting, currently 44%. Jevon Carter has been aggressively seeking 3-point attempts and gone 10-for-17 in the last three games.

Another positive from the Phoenix game is Zach LaVine finished with 8 assists, DeMar DeRozan had 7 and Coby White 6. White is making progress as a playmaker and showing signs of being a more consistent scoring threat. LaVine had a couple of nice assists in crunchtime Wednesday. The bad news was falling behind the Suns 22-4 to start the game.

"When we're on, we're on and it looks really good, but when we're off as you all can tell, there's something missing," Caruso said. "So it's just about working that out and making sure we're as consistent as possible."

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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