Bulls guard Alex Caruso doing more than paying ‘price of admission’
Not only is Caruso the head of the snake on defense, but he was the voice behind a Game 2 game plan from coach Billy Donovan that had the Bucks confused and second-guessing themselves most of the night.
MILWAUKEE — Bulls coach Billy Donovan wasn’t trying to play head games with coachspeak.
He wanted his players to understand the need for physicality in the first-round playoff series against the defending NBA champion Bucks as the ‘‘price of admission’’ each would have to be willing to pay.
Guard Alex Caruso not only was willing to pay that price after the Bulls’ loss Sunday in Game 1, but he challenged his teammates to do so, too.
‘‘He’s the anchor to our defense,’’ forward DeMar DeRozan said of Caruso after the Bulls’ victory Wednesday in Game 2. ‘‘Bringing the intensity, being vocal. I think I told him not too long ago I lean off him for his energy defensively. Just him being vocal. He’s a leader when it comes to that.
‘‘He gets me going. Even if he’s not talking to me directly, there’s a lot that I take from it. I kind of take on that challenge, especially when you see him go out there and compete against whoever it is. If it’s [Bucks superstar] Giannis [Antetokounmpo], [guard] Jrue [Holiday], whoever it is, you want to match that same intensity as him.’’
That’s almost impossible to do, especially in the wake of Caruso’s latest performance.
He had two of the Bulls’ seven steals, two blocks — including one on 7-footer Brook Lopez — and a huge offensive rebound with 35.1 seconds left and the game still in the balance before drawing a game-clinching charge on Antetokounmpo 30 seconds later.
Then factor in his 10 assists, three three-pointers and game-high plus-16 in plus/minus, and the Bulls came back to Chicago with a new confidence in a best-of-seven series now tied 1-1.
And Caruso’s attitude about the victory in Game 2?
‘‘Go to Game 3,’’ Caruso said matter-of-factly. ‘‘We gotta win three more times. Lot more games to play.’’’
That’s the perfect attitude for a Bulls team lacking playoff experience.
Caruso and backup center Tristan Thompson are the only players on the roster who have won an NBA title. Thompson, however, is only a role player for the Bulls; Caruso is the head of the defensive snake.
What they have in common is that both are disciples of LeBron James. Caruso said the championship he won with James and the Lakers two years ago taught him the importance of embracing the details, whether it’s a game plan or an opponent’s tendencies through film study.
That was on display in Game 2 against the Bucks. As good as Caruso was, Donovan’s defensive game plan was masterful in its schemes and in the way they changed from possession to possession.
Yes, Antetokounmpo often had a wall of Bulls in front of him when he tried to attack the paint. But the Bulls also blitzed certain Bucks, depending on where they were on the court, then other times faked a blitz, only to pull off it.
It left veteran players such as Holiday and Khris Middleton looking uncertain and confused, which was evident by the 10 combined turnovers the two committed.
Caruso was the voice behind a lot of the defensive calls, but Donovan was the architect of the controlled chaos.
‘‘I think if you show the same thing over and over and over, they kind of get a beat on it,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘So we’ve tried to sprinkle some things in where we give guys some latitude and freedom [on defense] to understand what we’re trying to get accomplished — sometimes faking, sometimes going. . . . We obviously cleaned up some things coming out of Game 1.’’
Caruso’s basketball IQ and voice made that easier.
‘‘He’s just really smart out there,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘He’s going to give you everything he has.’’