CLEVELAND --- Alex Caruso said he shifted into playoff mode in terms of how he mentally prepared for Saturday night.
“I’m just a little more serious, a little more concentrated, a little more focused,” Caruso said.
Caruso put his fingerprints all over the Chicago Bulls’ 98-94 victory over the Cavaliers, which, for the second time this week, clinched a season series over a team chasing them in the standings.
The Bulls largely have struggled since the All-Star break with inconsistent play. But building on Monday’s home victory over the Raptors with another strong showing is encouraging for the stretch run.
“It’s a long season. I don’t like excuses, but we’ve had guys in and out. A lot of times energy can fluctuate. Concentration can fluctuate. The season can kind of tear you down a little bit,” Caruso said. “But we know how good of a team when we lock in and play how we’re supposed to play. Execute. Help each other.”
Caruso finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, two steals and zero turnovers in 38 minutes. His plus-18 marked a game-high.
And it came with Caruso moving back to starting off the ball. Ayo Dosunmu returned to the lineup over Javonte Green.
“With Ayo (moving to the bench), there’s been a lot asked of (Caruso). Putting Alex at the point, now there’s a different kind of ask of him as well. Now you gotta run the team and you gotta guard. And I thought maybe putting Ayo back at the point and getting Alex at the power forward spot where he could defend and now the ball finds him and he’s able to make the next play, the next pass. That’s where he had been playing for us when we were whole,” coach Billy Donovan said. “He came off the bench, closed games for us at power forward. Lonzo handled or Zach or DeMar handled.
“Alex is another good smart guard who has a good feel for how to play. Sometimes when we’re putting him on the defensive assignments we are and then you’re asking him to run the team and keep the ball in his hands and get us into actions, it’s a lot. With Ayo, he can complement and share some of the ballhandling responsibilities.”
Caruso will do whatever is asked of him. But overall, he agreed with Donovan’s thought process and the dynamic resulting from the decision.
“I don’t know if burden is the right word. But I think it allowed me to play the game that I’m best at,” Caruso said. “I think I impacted the game really well and I only took (five) shots. Came off initial actions and tried to get the flow going, tried to get everybody involved as far as moving the ball, making reads, helping the offense flow.
“Defensively, I still think I can get better. I think I’m still getting in defensive shape of guarding the best players and giving that energy and competing every possession. I used my energy to affect the game, which I think is my best skill set.”
That it is. As he closely contested a Caris LeVert quarter-ending shot, LeVert looked to the officials for a foul. Caruso strode off the court confidently, boldly, knowing he had done his job.
In general, Caruso cited the Bulls returning to the tenacity and scrambling on defense mode that defined some of their early-season victories. And remember: He’s in playoff prep mode now.
“For whatever reason, we weren’t matching the standard at which we played for a lot of this season. Me personally, I tried to just lock in and treat it like playoff prep for me mentally---my pregame routine, the seriousness, the professionalism of trying to conduct myself,” Caruso said. “And I think it showed.”