The Bulls were down a man when they left for the West Coast on Thursday — a big man, at that.
Center Nikola Vucevic was put in the NBA’s health and safety protocol and will be sidelined for at least the next 10 days.
That’s not exactly the optimal way to kick off a difficult trip, but all was not lost, especially with guard Alex Caruso, whose skills travel well, on board.
He’s built for these western swings. On nights when the shot isn’t falling, an opposing player gets hot, the lineup is undermanned or teammates are simply out of sync, his grit and hustle are indispensable.
Caruso is a huge reason why this upcoming trip doesn’t appear as daunting as it has for the Bulls the last five years.
“We’re just kind of finding ways to win,’’ Caruso said. “And I think that’s the sign of a good team. And I think we have a lot of ways to get better. That’s the most encouraging thing to me.’’
If Caruso and Lonzo Ball continue to set the tone, the Bulls will keep improving.
In beating the Nets and Mavericks, the Bulls did find different ways, but there was also a constant: Ball harassing the opposing team’s best backcourt scorer and Caruso seemingly harassing everybody else.
Caruso tied a career high with six steals in the 117-107 victory against Dallas and, entering Thursday, led the league in that category, averaging 2.6 steals. He also was tied for second in the league in deflections at 4.3 per game.
Ball and Caruso will be tested in the next week. The Bulls open the trip against the 10-1 Warriors on Friday, then play the Clippers on Sunday and the Lakers on Monday. They head to Portland to face the Trail Blazers’ dangerous backcourt on Wednesday and finish the trip Friday against the Nuggets.
This once-foreboding stretch of the schedule is now being looked upon as a measuring stick to see if the 8-3 Bulls are a serious threat.
“You play the teams that are on your schedule,’’ guard Zach LaVine said. “You can’t be scared to be playing these teams because you want to be playing them later on in the season. It’s a challenge to see where you are as a group and how much you can get better. I think that’s the mentality you have to have.’’
It’s a mentality the Bulls can embrace based on what they’ve done this last week and how they’ve performed in the fourth quarter early on.
The Bulls’ defense has been pivotal in the eight victories but so has their ability to finish games. These strengths will be tested on this trip.
The Bulls lead the NBA in field-goal percentage (50.5%) and plus-minus (plus-4.2) in the fourth quarter. They are first in made free throws (6.5), second in attempted free throws (7.5) and tied for second in scoring (28.3 points) in the quarter.
That’s quite a turnaround compared to last season, when they were 25th in plus-minus (minus-1.1) and 19th in scoring (26.8 points) in the fourth quarter.
“It says a lot,’’ veteran DeMar DeRozan said. “Everybody wants something out of this. Everybody puts the work in. It’s not just us talking about it. It’s us doing all the physical things, as well. Taking every single day seriously. Whenever we get a chance to come in — if it’s to watch film, to work on our mistakes, to try to tighten up something — it’s a constant understanding of it’s bigger than just winning a game. It’s the long run.’’