Alex Caruso, DeMar DeRozan save the day as Bulls survive OT thriller for first win of the season

Alex Caruso, DeMar DeRozan save the day as Bulls survive OT thriller for first win of the season

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Alex Caruso, DeMar DeRozan save the day as Bulls survive OT thriller for first win of the season
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The basketball world will little note nor long remember what happened on a dreary and drizzly Friday night in the Land of Lincoln when the Bulls defeated the Toronto Raptors 104-103 in overtime. The battlefields of the NBA this night were lit up with the magic of Luka, Steph once again and Wemby as imagined.

But there was something truly special on that 94 by 50 United Center rectangle, something that is less measured than meaningful. 

Bulls guard Alex Caruso had the greatest 13-point game in NBA history.

I can’t prove it, but if you saw it you know it’s true – with the game-winning defensive and offensive plays in overtime with a three pointer to win the game. And at least three game-saving plays in the waning seconds of regulation with steals, offensive rebounds, a block and an assist. He filled up the box score in 20 seconds.

“Amazing,” said DeMar DeRozan, who did his own amazing stuff leading the Bulls with 33 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter to help the Bulls amazingly—that’s being used a lot; too bad—comeback from a 17-point deficit with less than five minutes to play in regulation. “He (Caruso) bailed us out; he made some great plays, steals, backcourt, offensive rebounds. The effort he played with shows why he is who he is. It’s amazing (it was!); it’s amazing the effort that he puts in, the sacrifice he makes throwing his body around, his IQ defensively, his instincts. It’s amazing to watch. It’s kind of like letting a cheetah out of the cage and just running wild when he’s out there. He makes it look pretty.”

You wouldn’t exactly say that, bald head, white headband, a tousle of beard and mustache, but an uncanny sense of where everyone and everything is. It’s a trait that’s been attributed to the rare athlete, sort of an eyes behind your head thing that is not physically possible, but which happens. John McPhee wrote it about Bill Bradley; coaches and opponents always said it about Bob Cousy. They just know how to be at he place.

“It might just be an innate thing that I have this ability to kind of see when stuff is going on,” Caruso said in his non plussed way. “Usually when there’s chaos like that, stuff is predictable. You can foreshadow what’s going to happen or what guys are trying to do. A lot of that is me anticipating and using that information that might be correct, might not. But at that point in the game you’ve got to make plays. I try to put myself in position to do that. It’s winning time; winning time is the last three, four, five minutes in the game when the plays are most crucial. For me, late in games it’s focusing in on opportunities to steal possessions and create chaos a little bit.”

Or a lot that saved the Bulls again and again and again in a game in which neither team played particularly well, Toronto shooting 25 percent on threes and the Bulls 21 percent and now about 26 percent in the two games. Tough it’s a relief of a 1-1 start after the home opening loss to Oklahoma City. 

The Bulls defensive disruption, led by Caruso and carried forward with a lot of help again from Torrey Craig, did shine a light of hope on this first week and the season. With Zach LaVine off to a slow start shooting, three of 14 but with a big assist late. But also with some apparent back discomfort. And Nikola Vučević also limited, it was the effort that saved the Bulls and provided some go-to for coach Billy Donovan.

“I really, really appreciate their grit and their fight because there were a lot of these emotional roller coasters,” said Donovan. “I give our guys credit. They kept their heads in the game and kept trying to fight even when there were bad moments in the game and it wasn’t a good night shooting the ball. That second quarter with Alex, Torrey, Jevon (Carter), there was a high level of motor and competitiveness. They really really laid it on the line.”

That’s when the Bulls laid a ridiculous 16-0 run on the Raptors, who in the first quarter had a 20-0 run after starting the game leading 8-0 and 14-2. After which the Bulls had a 9-0 run to lead 24-18 after one quarter and the Raptors had 23 points with less than three minutes left in the first half. After which they hit the Bulls with a 12-0 run to move within 42-35 at halftime after the Bulls had a 17-point lead in the second quarter with their winged men of Alex, Torrey and Jevon. At one point late in the second quarter, the teams were a combined four of 30 on threes. That’s how you have multiple 20-0 runs.

Then the Bulls opened the second half finishing up eight straight scoreless minutes, and then midway through the fourth quarter it was over with Toronto ahead 88-71. Or seemed so.

Now, Caruso had been doing his thing before then, drawing several charges, all over the boards as Caruso ended the game with career highs of 13 rebounds and six offensive. The Bulls had 15 offensive rebounds as they continued to fulfill that goal of creating more shots. They had 15 more field goal attempts, which included 10 steals and 23 points off turnovers.

It is a way to score; we’ll see how sustainable.

But even with all that there seemed no way Toronto could lose this game.

A big part of how they did was the DeMar Show, which we’ve seen many, many times, pump faking opponents apparently without game film into repeated fouls, snaking his way down the lane for basket after basket that everyone is shaking their head about, his team marveling how he got there and the opponent wondering how.

DeMar DeRozan scored 22 of his game-high 33 points in the 4th quarter and in overtime in the Bulls victory over the Raptors.

“He (DeRozan) was incredible,” said Donovan. “I loved the way we were playing (after) we started off so poorly. We were able to get some energy back in the game. His (DeRozan) performance was unbelievable. The thing that is crazy is he’s beating himself up over free throws now.”

DeRozan moves like he’s never sweating. But with a tinge of desperation no one would much admit after the opener and subsequent team discussion, DeRozan shockingly missed the third of three free throws with 3.5 seconds remaining in an attempt to tie the game after the Raptors more shockingly fouled him faking a shot. Seriously, do NBA players ever watch the NBA?

So then inbounding with 3.5 seconds left and Toronto leading 93-92, Caruso jumps in front of Pascal Siakam for an offensive foul. 

Oh, by the way, the Raptors earlier had a 91-88 lead with 19.8 seconds left in regulation. Throw in, get fouled and game over, right? So Caruso with Craig in tow races into the backcourt and steals the ball from Scottie Barnes, who led Toronto with 22 points and a triple double. Caruso then on the floor on his back, shovels the ball to DeRozan for a score and foul three-point play. Oh no, DeRozan missed that free throw for the tie.

Never fear, Alex is here.

“There were moments by Alex that were remarkable,” said Donovan still amazed. “The effort physically he was exerting to make plays was amazing. Alex guarded on some possessions like four people. He’s shutting off a drive and then the ball gets thrown over here and he’s x-cutting over there and he’s back there. It was unbelievable what he did physically, and defensively it was amazing.”

After Caruso gets the Bulls a possession with maybe the fourth or fifth offensive foul he drew in the game, DeRozan gets fouled for two shots. First one good to tie the game with seven tenths of a second. And then Bulls win? Not yet. DeRozan missed for overtime, though the Raptors had that seven tenths and Caruso kept Siakam from getting off a shot.

“That’s the matchup I lean into guarding the other team’s best players,” the 6-4 and maybe 185 Caruso acknowledged. “Those are the matches I lean into and why I am on this team. For me, wherever they throw the ball try to make a play and a lot of times they are going for their best guy. Maybe they should or maybe they shouldn’t, but I’m going to keep trying to make plays. I was just trying to get more possessions for DeMar and Zach for us to try to win the game.”

There’s been debate over the Bulls and DeRozan, the latter who plays more half court than Donovan often talks about. But with LaVine and Vučević limited, Donovan knew where overtime had to go.

“Like I told him to start overtime, we don’t have the opportunity or the chance without you,” Donovan related of his discussion with DeRozan. “’We’ve got a chance now. We’ve got to worry about that.’ DeMar willing the group and galvanizing the group was really important.”

It was impressive and even as DeRozan ages, his game never seems to get old. He didn’t have much going before the fourth quarter and ended with a zero plus/minus. But he likewise save dither day. Caruso was plus-29. No starter was plus for the game.

The Raptors did a lot wrong, but with their size and length they seek out mismatches and used that to creep ahead in the overtime 103-99 with 39.4 seconds left. And they gave that up, too. Talk about amazing.

DeRozan right back at ya scored quickly, and Toronto began to work the ball to its best player, Siakam.

Bad idea since you know who defends the best player no matter how much taller.

So Siakam tried to make a move into the lane.

Which is when it became amazing again.

“Low clock, we were playing for a stop,” said Caruso. “Pascal drove right and tried to big shoulder me and didn’t really get any separation.”

You’re not big shouldering, to paraphrase Carl Sandburg, stormy, husky, brawling; city of Alex Caruso.

“Got a strip, saw Zach was boxing out and he got the ball,” related Caruso on the winning sequence. “Then eight seconds and I’m just trying to space the floor. Zach made a great read.”

It’s been a tough start to the season for LaVine, and he played the second half with a wrap on his back. He attributed it to stiffness, and said he’d get treatment and see how things went heading into Saturday’s game in Detroit.

Zach LaVine struggled offensively, scoring only eight points on 3-of-14 shooting, but made the game-winning assist to Alex Caruso in overtime.

“I haven’t wanted to force anything, but obviously I’ve got to start getting things clicking,” said LaVine. “It’s obviously not the way I should be performing. Alex stripped it off his leg. I picked it up, looked at the clock and tried to drive. If I could get to the rim that was what I was going for, see if I could get fouled and get a layup. They all converged.”

“Zach trusted me and I did what I am supposed to do get to the corner,” said Caruso.

And won the game with a smooth left corner three pointer on the baseline pass from LaVine.

“Alex is incredible every night,” LaVine marveled. “He shows up when he’s not scoring, shows up when he is scoring. Between him and DeMar making those plays at the end of the game that won us the game. That’s what AC does and we are very fortunate to have him.”

And though it was just 13 points, it was a classic declaration.

Got a question for Sam?
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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.


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Alex Caruso, DeMar DeRozan save the day as Bulls survive OT thriller for first win of the season

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