Bulls learning hard lessons at worst time of regular season
Guard Alex Caruso has been trying to warn teammates of what’s to be expected in the playoffs, but going through it might be the only way they learn.
SALT LAKE CITY — Bulls guard Alex Caruso has a lot to say.
That’s good because he’s in a locker room where some truths need to be heard.
An inconsistent second half, such as the one in the Bulls’ 125-110 loss Wednesday to Jazz, can’t happen at this point of the season. The embarrassment Monday against the Kings shouldn’t happen at any point in the season.
Not if the Bulls want to get where they’ve talked about as a group since training camp and definitely not with only 13 regular-season games left.
‘‘Right now, we’re just having preliminary tests, right?’’ Caruso said Wednesday, doing his best to explain the mentality the Bulls need. ‘‘We’re figuring out our weaknesses — at least the ones that are correctable and we can control. Not the ones that other teams scout and are going to try and game-plan against us, but the ones that we can control as far as mentality, the competitiveness to win each possession. . . . Those are what we need to look at.’’
And not a few weeks from now or when April begins. Caruso wants those issues dealt with sooner than later, as the Bulls have started 0-2 on their road trip. He says that from experience.
Yes, forward DeMar DeRozan stared down LeBron James in an Eastern Conference finals and blinked. Sure, center Nikola Vucevic made a few playoff appearances with the Magic, only to be dismissed in the first round.
But Caruso is the only Bulls player who has kissed the championship trophy, and he did it in unique circumstances. He was sequestered in the NBA’s COVID bubble for months before winning the title with the Lakers in 2020.
So while DeRozan, Vucevic and Caruso have been trying to talk to the rest of the team about the difference between the regular season and the playoffs, Caruso knows that only will go so far. Until players actually go through it, there’s truly no way to prepare them for what’s coming.
‘‘Yeah, there’s no way to replicate it until you actually get there,’’ Caruso said. ‘‘We have to do our best to try and prepare as much as possible, and taking steps back like we did against [the Kings] is something we can’t do if we want to get to what we want to do and get to what we’ve talked about all year.
‘‘Regardless of who we have on the team, who is out there playing, the focus, the mentality, the sacrifice, the energy, the ability to emotionally wipe the slate clean and start fresh — all those things are things we can talk about and prepare for. But it’s not something you can turn off and on. It’s something we’ve really got to start taking seriously and ramping up for these last few weeks and games.’’
It was a message that appeared to resonate in the first half against Jazz, after which the Bulls trailed by only five. Then Jazz star Donovan Mitchell took over in the third quarter, scoring 25 points on 7-for-9 shooting from three-point range.
Still, the Bulls withstood that onslaught and trailed by only four with 6:52 left. It was short-lived, however, as the Jazz went on a 14-0 run against a Bulls defense that just couldn’t get stops.
Mitchell finished with a game-high 37 points. Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 33.
‘‘Those attention-to details-things,’’ Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. ‘‘I think we’re playing hard; they fight. But there’s an experience component that we’re going through that I hope we learn sooner than later.’’