Alex Caruso's heroics lead shorthanded Bulls in OT win vs. Bucks

The Bulls Thursday became the little team that could.

Could break their five-game losing streak, could play their best game of the season against a streaking Milwaukee Bucks team, could demonstrate what they’ve been trying to do all season with a season-high 32 assists and season-high 29 points from Nikola Vučević, could get another game-changing three-pointer from Alex Caruso — the NBA will retire No. 6 for Bill Russell while the Bulls do it for Caruso — and could playing a lineup of mostly guards against the block-out-the-sun Bucks big lineup without their own injured all stars, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, pull off an improbable overtime 120-113 win over the Bucks.

Could it be?

Yes, it be very sweet.

And no fluke because even if the Bulls were somewhat fortunate to end regulation with Caruso’s three to tie at the buzzer when the Bucks inexplicably failed to foul with several chances, the mini Bulls of Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu, Jevon Carter, Torrey Craig and Caruso outhustled, outthought and outplayed the Bucks of Giannis, Dame and Khris Middleton virtually throughout.

The Bulls had a 51-43 rebounding margin with Andre Drummond grabbing 14 in 13 minutes; the Bulls put eight players in double figures scoring with White adding 23 points and Dosunmu 14; the Bulls were back to their disruptive ways forcing 21 turnovers (ooops, they also committed 21) with 14 steals for 25 points, and when overtime came it was the opponents who were the deer in headlights.

White got the Bulls started in the overtime with a three. And then with one of his team-high seven assists, White kept the big dog eating with a slick interior pass for a Vučević slam dunk for a 111-110 Bulls lead with 2:41 left in the overtime.

After which it was nothing but exhaust fumes for the apparently exhausted Bucks and a seemingly disengaged Damian Lillard, who appeared to finally realize he’s not going to Miami and may have checked the Farmer’s Almanac for the December weather forecast. He committed back to back turnovers, the second when Caruso took away his inbounds pass in what seemed like the Bucks last chance trailing 115-110 with 36.4 seconds left.

Caruso then passed to a streaking Patrick Williams for a certain slam dunk this time — Giannis Antetokounmpo earlier had a brilliant block of a Williams driving dunk attempt with 6.2 seconds left in regulation that at the time looked like it saved the game for Milwaukee — and then Williams intercepted a second consecutive errant Bucks inbounds pass with 3.7 seconds in the overtime to leave many driving up I-94 rubbing their eyes about seeing a Buck across the hood of this sporty Bulls model.

“Definitely great to get a win the way the season has been going for us,” said Vučević, who was coming off his worst week as a Bull with three consecutive single digit scoring games. “Very proud of how we competed and fought. We didn’t start the game off great (9-0 Milwaukee). I thought that second unit did a great job getting us a nice lead and we go into overtime and find a way. Proud of my teammates battling with being shorthanded; two of our best players are out. A lot of guys stepped up big time who don’t play a lot of minutes in general and had to take bigger roles and did a great job; very, very happy for everybody

“We played for each other,” said Vučević. “Played good, we played smart, played with a lot of good energy both ends of the floor, and it was fun to be part of it and win.”

Which despite the twins euphoria and relief, a haunting part of the post game narrative became, well, how should we all put this, better without DeMar and Zach?

“That has nothing to do with it,” Vučević quickly corrected. “We just came together. We knew what we had to do, we came back home and wanted to play well. Those two guys, we need them if we want to achieve anything.”

Lately it hasn’t been much with the Bulls record now 6-14. And this against a Milwaukee team that doesn’t look as dominant as it once was, but had won eight of nine and now is 13-6.

What was striking for the Bulls in this game was much more of what coach Billy Donovan has talked about all season with a faster pace of play, quicker decision making with the ball, passing and cutting and in-your-face defense.

“The force we played with and how we communicated on defense I thought was really, really good,” said Donovan. “We did a lot of positive things in the game. I love the fact we had so many guys in double figures and a lot of guys stepped up and made a lot of big shots. Obviously, Alex makes a great shot at the end (of regulation) to give us a chance.

“And we were able to find Vooch inside,” Donovan pointed out. “I thought our guys played aggressively and pushed the ball when we got down the floor. It’s a competitive group. They went out there wanting to compete and battle. Anytime you lose two great players like Zach and DeMar, it’s going to hurt any team. But I give our guys credit for rising up and finding a way to win the game. Ayo (starting and Caruso back also starting) played a really good tempo and pace, had a lot of good drives and shots. Coby made a lot of big shots to save us, so to speak. I thought there were so many different guys. It was one of those games everyone had contributions in their own way.”

Caught the Bucks by surprise with the way the Bulls were losing games lately and 45 points missing from the lineup?

Milwaukee lulled by their easy 9-0 start to the game?

And then even with all the Bulls did, the Bucks after trailing 103-96 on a 30-foot desperation White three at the 24-second buzzer with 1:26 left in regulation overwhelmed the Bulls with a 10-0 run to take a 106-103 lead with 5.2 seconds left. Just what everyone expected, if taking a bit longer?

Milwaukee coach Adrian Griffin was a former Bulls player and assistant under Scott Skiles. He’s one of those coaches in this 50/50 division among coaches who believes in not fouling late for fear of three free throws.

The Bulls were surprised, especially when Caruso took a handoff from Vučević and began to dribble toward the right wing above the three-point circle. The play had been for White off a screen, but the Bucks smothered that.

“I thought (they were going to foul),” admitted Vučević. “I was surprised they didn’t. If I couldn’t get (the ball) to AC, I probably would have had to shoot it. I definitely thought they were going to foul at some point and definitely as it got closer to zero. But it’s also tricky now because guys are so good getting into the rhythm of shooting, and then it’s free throws.”

So the Bulls maybe got a break there, but it wasn’t just a random shot.

Remember, it’s Alex the Science Guy.

It’s a game, but it’s also a science, and that’s what also makes Caruso special. Other than blowing up all the screens, the anticipation for the steals, the charges….

Right, the shot.

“I was to cut over the top,” outlined Caruso. “Vooch got the catch and I set the dummy flare screen for Coby. I heard they said (Bucks coming out of huddle) they were going to switch one through five. So I kind of knew what the play the coach drew up. Either they were both going to come with me toward Vooch or both go away, and I tried to time it right so they messed up the switch. I got a little bit of space, got the handoff from Vooch, Brook stepped up and I just tried to make sure to get a little bit of space and shot it, rose up and made it.”

Even a tougher one than the corner three he made to win that game against Toronto last month.

“I don’t think it’s that difficult (a shot),” said Caruso, more matter of fact than cocky. “I shoot that a lot playing open gym and in September when we come back with the guys. I just don’t get the opportunity to shoot it a lot because I’m usually the guy taking the ball out. So I was excited I got to shot it tonight.

“I had a lot of turnovers,” Caruso pointed out about his unusual seven while everyone else just wanted to discuss the winning play. “So I also wanted to make sure I didn’t lose the game because I turned it over a lot.”

Nah, Alex, you’re the last guy anyone blames for anything that goes wrong.

Actually, once the Bulls seemed to get over DeRozan being out with that sprained ankle and LaVine with a foot problem, they made four straight three-point shots to buck the trend and the Bulls were leading 26-24 by the end of the first quarter.

“We kept hanging in and kept playing the next possession with resiliency,” admired Donovan.

There also were some mini dramas going on.

Former Buck Carter, who apparently wasn’t so enamored of the Bucks decision to let him go, made a point of telling players on the Bucks bench about his makes as he took them and had 11 points and three steals. Carter seemed to use well his experience of being in all those Bucks practices by cleverly anticipating several Middleton and Giannis passes that became turnovers. Giannis had five turnovers and Lillard seven.

Vučević was impressive against Brook Lopez, stepping outside for two first-quarter threes. And then when Lopez chased outside, it was Vučević stepping lightly — or as much as he can — past Lopez for layups and dunks. The Bucks tried an ineffective Bobby Portis, whom both Vučević and Drummond rebounded over. Vučević added 10 rebounds and six assists, just his second double-double in the last seven games.

It was Vučević involved and engaged like the preseason talk of running more offense through him, which hasn’t manifested.

The Bucks reasserted themselves in the second quarter as Lillard scored 11 of his 18 points. Lillard was zero for six with one point in the second half and overtime combined. The Bulls played him hard, but not that hard. Shame Time? 

The Bucks took a 55-49 lead at halftime. But as they would the rest of the game, the Bulls were those guys who kept coming and owned the starts of each quarter. They hit Milwaukee with a 7-0 to begin the third with a Caruso slice cut and slam dunk on a White pass and a three on a Dosunmu pass. That after the Bulls began the third quarter with a Caruso lob for a Williams dunk.

“One thing about our young guys, they work their butts off every day trying to improve,” complimented Vučević. “They are really workers and listeners, and it showed.”

The Bucks began to establish some third quarter dominance with Giannis getting serious after attempting just three first-quarter shots. The Bulls trapped often and Giannis gave up the ball a lot, but the Bucks amazingly still struggle to get him in actions on the move. He finished with 26 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, five blocks and five turnovers. 

He did it all, the good, bad and ugly.

The Bulls pulled back into a tie at 80 after three quarters, and then hit the occasionally somnambulant Bucks with a 10-0 to begin the fourth quarter with more White hot shot making.

“That’s the Coby we all know and love,” said Williams. “That’s the Coby we need. Since I came into the league the steady progression he’s had is a testament to his work. He’s always ready for the moment because he puts the work in. He’s going to be ready; he stays true to himself. I knew it was only going to be a matter of time. For us, I don’t think any of us are shocked by what he’s doing. We know the talent he has. It’s only a matter of time with guys like that until they break out.”

White the last seven games is averaging 19.4 points and shooting 48% on threes making more than four per game.

This looked all Bulls as they stretched that fourth quarter lead to 94-82 on some Drummond free throws. Talk about work. He made six of eight after the Boston hack fest.

And then when the relay tag team of Dosunmu, Vučević, Williams and White hit the Bucks with a 9-6 boost to make it 103-96 Bulls with 1:26 left, the Bucks looked cooked.

“The game over in the NBA is always hard to say,” offered Caruso. “I had another turnover, which you can’t do in that situation. Brook hit that (corner three with 21.4 seconds left after a Malik Beasley three with 48.3 seconds left in regulation), and then Dame rejected me. I had a lot of hands in this game apart from the shot going in (at the end).”

Which really was all that mattered to most everyone this time.

“I tried to talk to the guys because I knew we had a timeout and regardless if he (Giannis) made both free throws or one (made two for that 106-103 lead with 5.2 seconds left), we were going to have a shot to come back and tie or win. So I just made sure everyone stayed locked in and focused; about keeping the mentality. Up seven a minute and a half and then down one with six seconds to go takes a lot of mental fortitude to keep playing and move onto the next play. Proud of the guys for that.”

They thought they could; they thought they could, and then they showed they would. It’s about knowing you can.

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