Alas, the NBA is rarely perfect.
Nevertheless, the loss of Ball for the Chicago Bulls’ first-round series against the heavily favored and defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks is significant. And it’s worth noting that Ball, who is out for the season and has been sidelined since Jan. 15 with a left knee issue that ultimately needed surgery, didn’t face the Bucks this season.
“Forty percent catch-and-shoot. Top-five, ten percent deflections and steals in the league,” Caruso said, when asked what the Bulls miss without Ball. “He’s the starting point guard on this team for a reason. He’s a really good player.”
It also should be noted that, even with Ball, the Bucks would have posed matchup problems for the Bulls’ preferred, early-season closing lineup of Ball, Caruso, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević. Whether the Bucks close with Brook Lopez at center or Giannis Antetokounmpo there in a smaller lineup, perhaps Patrick Williams would’ve been needed to crash that rotational party.
Still, the Bulls owned a top-10 defense when Ball entered the league’s health and safety protocols on Dec. 26, missing five games. They also forced the eighth-most turnovers to that point.
Ball returned to play six games before the knee issue shut him down for good. Caruso also missed substantial time with his own stint in protocols, a fractured right wrist that came courtesy of a Grayson Allen flagrant foul in the first meeting against the Bucks, and back and hamstring issues.
The Bulls finished with the 23rd-ranked defense and tied for 23rd in turnovers forced.
“The size and physicality of Lonzo and Alex had a huge impact on our defense early in the year. The way we played generated a lot of turnovers. We were disruptive,” coach Billy Donovan said. “Also, offensively, beyond Lonzo’s shooting, he impacted our pace of play. He was so fast and so good at getting the ball up the floor.
“Any time you lose good players off any team, there’s going to be an impact. You start in training camp and you’re putting in a system and style of play and trying to build an identity. And then injuries happen and you have to shift.
“I give the guys a lot of credit for keeping themselves ready and staying focused. But, yes, Lonzo is a big absence for our team.”
Donovan isn’t a woe-is-us type coach. He also doesn’t look backward unless asked to do so. In his next breath, he pointed to a positive byproduct of Ball’s extended absence — the growth and development of rookie Ayo Dosunmu.
Donovan also made clear his mindset in advance of this series.
“As great a player as Lonzo is, there’s enough here,” he said. “We’re not going to sit here and say what we can’t do.”
But the numbers don’t lie. The Bulls aren’t creating as many turnovers now as they did earlier in the season. Their pace of play has slowed. Their 3-point shooting has dropped.
Ball and Caruso appeared headed to receiving first-team All-Defensive votes before the calendar flipped to 2022.
“I think it’s just something we both enjoy doing,” Caruso said. “It’s part of our games that when we get deflections, rebounds or steals, we get out in transition. I think that’s somewhere we both really excel.”
The Bulls will have to try to find ways to do so without Ball.