Healthy Caruso ready to face Bucks in the playoffs: 'I don't think we've seen their best yet'

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso (6) defends against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 12, 2022, in Chicago.

    Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso (6) defends against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, March 12, 2022, in Chicago. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 4/13/2022 7:23 PM

Alex Caruso made a championship run with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2020, but it wasn't quite the maximum experience.

It happened in the Orlando bubble with fans represented on video screens instead of screaming from the seats.

 

"It was as intense basketball as you could get," Caruso said. "Obviously there's no crowd so it's different. The level of basketball that's being played, the attention to detail, the commitment to physicality, all those things were very much there."

After winning the title with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Caruso got to experience the playoffs in the role of defending champion, just like Milwaukee is this year.

The Lakers ended up losing in the first round to a Phoenix Suns squad that was new to the playoffs, just like the Bulls are now. The biggest difference is the Suns were the No. 2 seed in the West last year, while the slumping Bulls are considerable underdogs in this series against the Bucks, which begins Sunday at 5:30 p.m.

One goal for the Bulls is getting Caruso at full-strength. After taking the final three games off to rest a sore back, he was back at practice at the Advocate Center on Tuesday.

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"I felt like yesterday in practice, he looked a lot more like himself," Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. "I don't feel like he's looked like himself in several games. He hasn't defended like he normally can defend, he hasn't been able to move like he normally moves."

Caruso agreed the time off worked wonders for his health.

"I feel good. I feel as close to 100% I think as I can right now," he said.

While the Bulls have been talking about being able stay competitive in this series if they can play their best in Milwaukee, the playoff-tested Caruso knows it won't be that simple.

"I don't think we've seen their best yet, either," Caruso said. "Just knowing Jrue (Holiday), knowing Khris (Middleton), the type of competitors they are, obviously everybody knows about Giannis (Antetokounmpo).

"Khris has brought it to another level every playoffs. Jrue I think showed last year the kind of player he really is and people hadn't really been able to see him in that light, being in New Orleans for so long. But he's a heck of a player. When the lights go on, those players take it to another level."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Bulls went 0-4 against Milwaukee this season. The first two games were competitive, the second two were not.

I'm excited for the competition," Caruso said. "I'm excited to play against the defending champs.

"I know what it's like being on the other end. I'm just trying to get our guys ready for that fire, that competition. I think our best is good enough to play with anybody in the league."

Not easy as OKC:

Billy Donovan made the playoffs all five years he coached in Oklahoma City, but advanced beyond the first round just once. His record in playoff games is 18-23.

There were some memorable losses in there. The Thunder lost a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals against Golden State during Donovan's first season, then there was Damien Lillard's memorable 35-foot game-winner in Portland in 2019.

"The teams that advanced were together for a little bit," Donovan said. "I think one of the challenges we had, not making excuses, was every year I was there, it was different team. There was not a lot of chemistry there and cohesiveness."

Noting the naysayers:

DeMar DeRozan on the Bulls being heavy underdogs in this playoff series against Milwaukee: "My whole life, my motivation to make it was all the naysayers. So you've got to use that free energy whatever way possible. As a competitor, you want to take on that challenge."

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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