Caruso's return helps spark Bulls to victory; DeRozan scores 30
Let's allow DeMar DeRozan explain what it meant to the Bulls to have Alex Caruso back on the floor.
Besides his hustle and defense, DeRozan credited Caruso for what he says in the locker room before the team takes the floor.
"AC is kind of like that one college professor that's always preaching a thesis or something," DeRozan said. "That's AC."
So was there a particular thesis for how to beat Cleveland on Wednesday?
"Yeah, play hard," he said.
The Bulls picked up their defensive effort, particularly down the stretch, and ended their four-game losing streak with a 117-104 victory at the United Center.
Caruso returned to action for the first time since Dec. 20 after dealing with a left foot sprain, then health and safety protocols. He didn't seem sharp on the offensive end, hitting 2 of 8 shots for 9 points, but that's sort of how he plays anyway.
Caruso's strengths are energy and defense, and team-wide the Bulls brought plenty of that to this game. Caruso also copped to being in a bad mood because of the losing streak.
"We lost four in a row. Even thought I didn't play, I feel those," Caruso said. "My attitude was find a way to win no matter what. I didn't have any competitive outlet for a month, so I was teed up, I was ready to go."
Some of their biggest plays were made on the defensive end. Coby White had 4 steals and Ayo Dosunmu sealed the win by swiping an inbounds pass intended for Lauri Markkanen and drawing a clear-path foul with 1:34 left.
"Alex's ability to communicate on defense, recognize when to switch, when to front the post, recognizing what's coming, he can anticipate things," coach Billy Donovan said. "Him coming back certainly makes us better defensively, there's no question about that."
DeRozan led the Bulls with 30 points and shot it well, hitting 14 of 24 attempts. Center Nikola Vucevic had 24 points and 12 rebounds. Dosunmu contributed 16 points and 8 assists, while White finished with 16 points.
Dosunmu had a big fourth quarter, hitting a pair of corner 3s, then finding Vucevic in the opposite corner for a 3-pointer that put the Bulls up 113-102.
The Cavs trimmed the Bulls' 11-point lead to 103-102 when Isaac Okoro hit 1 of 2 free throws with 4:18 left. On the next possession, Dosunmu knocked down a corner 3 from DeRozan, which kicked off a game-ending 14-2 run.
While Cleveland missed its next three shots, DeRozan scored in the paint, then a White steal set up the Vucevic corner 3.
Caruso talked about what it was like to be back after playing in just two full games since Dec. 4.
"Just being with my guys, watching them go through it, not being able to affect it at all -- that's probably the toughest thing about being part of a team," he said. "That's probably what coaching's like, what being a parent is like, watching people you care about play the game and having no control. Not a great feeling. It was a lot better to be there tonight out on the floor."
DeRozan agreed: "Everything (Caruso) brings -- energy, presence, leadership -- it goes a long way," he said. "His voice in the locker room before we go out there on the court, in the huddles, halftime. It's definitely something we lean on and feed off, so it was great to have him back. He definitely helped us get this win."
Markkanen showed up ready to play in his former home. He knocked down his first 3 shots from 3-point range and finished the night with a team-high 28 points, to go with 7 rebounds.
For the most part, the Bulls (28-15) fared well by going right at Cleveland's tall front line. Not always, but after acting like they were afraid of getting shots blocked in the first quarter, the Bulls weren't afraid to drive into the paint. During the first half, DeRozan and White hit a combined 13 of 19 shots, and both teams finished with 4 blocked shots.
Alfonzo McKinnie started the game, played the first five minutes, then never returned. Donovan said that was because he liked the way Troy Brown Jr. was playing and Caruso's return was going to cut into someone's minutes.