10 observations: Bulls bring havoc back in Caruso's return

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In Alex Caruso's return from a 22-game, wrist-injury induced absence, the Chicago Bulls notched a 101-91 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers at the United Center, moving their season-long record to 41-26.

Here are 10 observations:

1. The United Center welcomed Caruso back with a standing ovation as he checked in off the bench at the 6:31 mark of the first quarter, and he went on to log 29 minutes in keeping with his 24-to-30 playing-time restriction.

In those minutes, he did just about every “Caruso thing” one could ask for: Intercepting passes, directing his teammates to the correct defensive stops and pushing pace off of Cleveland mistakes. He finished with 11 points, four assists and four steals. 

"I'm excited to just play basketball again," Caruso said. "Caught myself just walking onto the court for pregame warmup, smiling, excited to be out there. When the game started I was standing up for random plays that probably didn't need to be cheered for. I was just excited to be back and playing basketball."

The only thing missing was a drawn charge.

Though Billy Donovan and Caruso agreed he was “gassed” by the end of the contest, his 4-for-8 shooting line (1-for-2 from 3-point range), 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and resilience bouncing back up after a handful of hard falls point to a player whose rhythm hasn’t missed too drastic of a beat.

2. Javonte Green began the game donning a white headband. Patrick Williams, who is still sidelined as he rehabs after wrist surgery, took to the bench wearing a No. 6 jersey.

Were those homages to Caruso's return?

"We have great chemistry. I think everybody on the team is pulling for whoever it is at the time that needs it, and tonight it was me," Caruso said. "I think that's a product of how much I pour into my teammates and they pour into me."

3. It doesn’t feel a coincidence that Caruso’s first night back coincided with one of the Bulls’ best defensive performance in quite a while — and it went beyond holding Cleveland to 91 points and 41.9 percent shooting (their first time holding an opponent under 100 since Caruso's last game).

In the havoc-wreaking department, which Caruso always projected to help immediately, the Bulls swiped 12 steals (their second straight game with double-digit steals), forced 14 Cavaliers turnovers and scored 21 points off of them — their highest points-off-turnovers total since Feb. 16. In related news, they also scored 19 fast break points, their most since Feb. 7.

"His IQ to be able to see things as they're developing and being able to jump into passing lanes and recognize and read," Donovan said of Caruso, "we become, obviously, more disruptive."

4. Donovan, though, was quick to point out that the Bulls turned it over 14 times in their own right, and allowed 17 points off those giveaways. It was the main blemish on an otherwise comprehensive victory, which saw the Bulls seize a double-digit advantage early in the second quarter and maintain control through the finish.

5. Zach LaVine’s left knee soreness flared up for the first time since the All-Star break, leading to him being ruled out pregame after being listed questionable for most of the day. (You can read Billy Donovan’s summary of LaVine’s status here.)

LaVine also missed the Bulls’ Jan. 19 win over the Cavaliers, the team’s only victory over a playoff team since the calendar flipped to 2022. A familiar cast of characters to that 117-104 win stepped up in this one too.

6. DeMar DeRozan, as he has for most of the season, had little trouble filling the primary scoring gap, notching 25 points and six assists. Though he shot 9-for-26 from the field, he was a perfect 7-for-7 from the foul line.

7. Nikola Vučević logged his 38th double-double in 59 games with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Five of those points came in an impactful fourth-quarter spurt, with a 3-point jumper and hook shot that pushed the Bulls’ lead from 89-77 to 94-79.

8. Ayo Dosunmu chipped in 17 points and continued a season-long trend of selecting his shots wisely. He went 7-for-10 from the field and 3-for-4 from 3-point range on a diet of prudently-chosen driving layups and spot-up jumpers.

The Bulls’ rookie also supplied mostly-sublime on-ball defense on Darius Garland, who, in addition to his All-Star credentials, has a history of being a thorn in the Bulls’ side. He entered play averaging 22 points and nine assists in two games against them this season — and 18.9 points and 6.4 assists in eight career games.

On Saturday, he shot 2-for-12 and committed four turnovers in the first half, before coming on in the second half to finish with 25 points and seven assists (six turnovers) on 9-for-24 shooting. Still, his impact was subdued by his lofty standards.

"He's a hard guy to contain, because he's so crafty," Donovan said of Garland. "But I thought we were disruptive, aggressive, we were up there, we were physical, and certainly made it hard for him. In the second half, he got downhill to the basket maybe a little bit more than we would have liked to."

"I thought Ayo did a much better job than I did," said Caruso, who Donovan credited along with Dosunmu for slowing Garland. "We tried to put me on him in the second half, got a little fatigued, not gonna lie to you. My feet were a little bit in mud."

Indeed, Dosunmu's showing, which featured two steals, was a marked improvement from his first two matchups with Garland.

9. Coby White submitted a quietly impactful nine points, seven assists, seven rebounds and two steals starting in LaVine’s place. A sign of growth that he impacted winning while just 1-for-4 from 3-point range, which wouldn’t have been realistic earlier in his career.

10. This was an important win for the Bulls to bank. With it, they pull three games ahead of the sixth-place Cavaliers and lead the season series 2-1. The Bulls can clinch the tiebreak when these teams meet in Cleveland for the final time this season on March 26.

Next up for the Bulls: Off to Sacramento on Monday to tip off a three-game West Coast swing.

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