Alex Caruso returns, and so does the Bulls' mojo in win over Cavaliers

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CHICAGO (670 The Score) – About 11 hours later, Bulls guard Alex Caruso explained why he was a tad cranky at morning shootaround Wednesday.

“We lost four in a row, and even though I didn’t play, I feel those,” Caruso said. “My attitude was find a way to win no matter what. And then you all asked me questions about weathering the storm, so that kind of made me – I told you I didn’t have any competitive outlet for a like a month, so I was teed up, I was ready to go.”

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Just as much as Caruso needed to get his competitive juices flowing, the Bulls also needed him.

With Caruso playing for the first time since Dec. 20 after being sidelined by a foot injury and COVID-19 protocols, the Bulls earned a 117-104 win against the Cavaliers at the United Center to snap a four-game losing streak. Caruso played 23 minutes – he was on a 24-minute restriction – and scored nine points on 2-of-8 shooting with three rebounds, two assists and a highlight-reel chase-down block while recording a game-best +18 in plus-minus.

Of course, Caruso’s counting stats are only a small part of what he provides for the Bulls (28-15), who are tied for first place with the Heat in the East but still playing shorthanded with star guard Zach LaVine and point guard Lonzo Ball both set to be out at least the next three games.

“Everything he brings – his energy, his presence, his leadership, it goes a long way,” said forward DeMar DeRozan, who led all scorers with 30 points. “His voice in the locker room before we go out there on the court and in the huddles, halftime, it’s something we definitely lean on and feed off. So it was great to have him back.”

The victory was sparked by the Bulls scoring 24 points off 15 turnovers by the Cavaliers, and the disruptive Caruso was in the middle of his fair share of it. That wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who responded “it’s everything” when asked what Caruso means to the Bulls’ identity on the defensive end and in transition, where they’re among the most dangerous teams in the NBA.

“You see tonight – we were a different type of team,” DeRozan said. “We were aggressive. The wings feed off AC. What he generates defensively gives us opportunities to get out into transition. That’s what you saw tonight. I feel like that’s where we’re at our best, when we’re able to do that.”

The Bulls went 8-5 in Caruso’s absence but cratered on the defensive end without him. Their defense had ranked in the top 10 for most of the season before he went down on Dec. 20. During his absence, the Bulls ranked 24th in the NBA in defensive efficiency.

Caruso didn’t cure all the Bulls’ ills at that end Wednesday – the Cavaliers still shot 51.9% – but he made a few big plays when Chicago needed them. Late in the third quarter, he sandwiched a 3-pointer and a layup around strong defense that contributed to a pair of Cavaliers turnovers on a moving screen and a traveling call as the Bulls stretched their lead from six to 11.

For his part, Caruso was just thankful to be back.

“Just being with my guys, watching them go through it, not being able to affect it at all,” Caruso said of the hardest part of being out. “That’s probably the toughest thing about playing a sport, being a part of a team. That’s probably what coaching is like, it’s probably what being a parent is like – watching people you care about play the game and having no control. Not a great feeling. So it was a lot better to be there tonight and be out on the floor with them.”

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.