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Bulls hold off Spurs in San Antonio

No one possession generally determines an NBA game. Sure, you make a final shot for a win as time expires and there’s that. But even when a few highlight dunks or fancy passes rate reruns and the bench erupting into dance, they don’t determine the end result in a game when each team has about 100 possessions. So neither did that Alex Caruso sequence midway through the fourth quarter of an eventual 122-116 victory against the San Antonio Spurs finally weight the scale in the Bulls favor.

But that play and disruption of Spurs lead scorer Tre Jones, which eventually resulted in an Ayo Dosunmu fast break layup to get the Bulls within 109-105 with 6:35 left in the game, effectively demonstrated and symbolized the effort more than the efficiency and efficacy that was necessary for the Bulls success on this night. 

It was a play sequence that explained why a veteran team wins this game, the special alchemy which blends heart with hustle to produce a hidebound basketball happiness.

All on the same possession, Caruso first disrupted Jones’ dribble. That forced a poor baseline pass heading out of bounds the Spurs attempted to save. Caruso intercepted the lofted save attempt with a skyward directional tip of the ball as he was tumbling out of bounds along the sideline. He recovered to reset his feet in bounds and with the ball still hanging in the air — Air Caruso? — Caruso caught the ball, and ballet dancing along the sideline he bounced a pass to Dosunmu who continued for the breakaway layup.

“The play he made that was unbelievable was when he stole it and saved it; it was just unbelievable, incredible,” said Bulls coach Billy Donovan, generally more opaque than overzealous. “That was just an unbelievable play. Never mind the deflection part of it being unbelievable, the fact he kept the ball in play was amazing. And then I gave him a quick blow and he came back in and knocked down a three; what he does is incredible.”

That Caruso three-pointer after a minute to digest it all got the Bulls back with a point after they’d lost an 18-point third quarter lead and were trailing 106-98 with just under nine minutes left in the game.

It was Nikola Vučević with 24 points and 16 rebounds who probably made the AP and ESPN recaps with a block on a Jones drive with 1:46 left and the Bulls barely gripping a two-point lead. Because after an exchange of free throws, it also was Vučević on a DeMar DeRozan pass and a discreet Caruso screen making a right corner three to effectively clinch the win by giving the Bulls a four-point lead with 31.7 seconds left.

Oh right, and Caruso also chased and harassed Devin Vassell, the Spurs second leading scorer and shooter — lead scorer without Wembanyama — into 1-of-13 for five points.

“We stuck with it and responded, and at the end we made plays for a lot of guys,” said Vučević, who also had five assists and three blocks. “Just found a way. Just kept saying, ‘Stick with it, find a way.’ It wasn’t easy. A tough game, but a big win for us. Happy to have made a shot, but obviously more happy that I helped us win the game. We came up with a big win for us in a tough back-to-back after a long flight and everything (getting in 4 a.m.). 

“Lately it's been better for me as well,” Vučević added. “Many ways I can really be useful for this team. Not only just scoring, but my playmaking, using me as a guide (so) I can make plays for others. Whether it's when I flash and catch the ball and play off that movement, pick-and-rolls, in pockets, post, whatever it is. Not just for me, but I think everybody has been in a much better place lately and it's helped our team. I think you can see it with the way we've been playing out there. Some games it’s one guy, some other games someone else is stepping up, and it doesn't matter. We're going to have guys scoring. Lately, I’ve been feeling much better out there playing with more confidence and enjoying it more.”

It also was a relief for the Bulls to reach the halfway point of the season, if not thrilled to be 19-22. But winners of nine of their last 14 to put far behind that 5-14 start and have a reasonable chance to make a move into the top six in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls currently are in a play-in ninth spot. But they’re only five gams behind fifth place Cleveland, whom the Bulls visit Monday for their Martin Luther King Day game.

The Bulls Saturday got 21 points from Dosunmu off the bench, though he hurt his wrist on a drive late in the game. He had started the second half for Coby White, who got a cut lower lip late in the second quarter and left for stitches. He returned in the third quarter and finished with 15 points. DeRozan had 20 points, Caruso 11 and Zach LaVine 10 with just eight shots, but with a team-most seven assists. Jevon Carter returning to the rotation off the bench scored 14, though the Spurs bench outscored the Bulls’ 59-42.

Patrick Williams didn’t play with a recurrence of ankle problems, but the Spurs were short (and small) with both their centers, Victor Wembanyama because of their back-to-back, and Zach Collins not playing.

That enabled Vučević and Andre Drummond to combine for 26 rebounds, but the Spurs hustled enough to match the Bulls overall with 47 retrieves. The Bulls did continue the play that gives them encouragement moving forward with 31 assists and 15 threes and 44% shooting from long distance and 51% overall.

But even with the Spurs missing both their big guys and shooter Doug McDermott, it was the sort of so-called trap game a more superior team could lose given the Bulls recent circumstances, consecutive overtime games, lured into a track meet with the Golden State Warriors, and then fighting their way to the airport through the blizzard after Friday’s delayed game because of the Ring of Honor halftime ceremonies. It also was a rare third game against a Western Conference opponent because the Bulls, then also bad, got a weak opponent from the leftover losers of the in-season tournament.

It was an easy enough game to give up on after surrendering that big third quarter lead.

Alex Caruso doesn’t do that.

“Tough night, game of runs on a back-to-back, good win,” he told Bulls photographers in a Bill Belichick imitation on his way out of the arena.

Caruso finished the game with those 11 points, six rebounds, six assists, three blocks and two steals. Sure, nice across the board numbers, but which usually doesn’t get you in the first paragraph of the game summary. Or on the highlight TV show.

Just No. 1 in the hearts of your teammates.

Caruso plays the game like Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, who wasn’t much of a shooter until late in his career and never was a box score star. He’d finish a game with eight points and the opposing coach would tell you that his team could have won but Kidd controlled the entire game. 

That’s right, you just had to be there.

“It’s game-changing for us (Caruso’ defense) knowing we have him out there and he’s going to guard the best player every night, going to be aggressive and makes all of us more aggressive by the plays he makes,” said Vučević. “A lot of times they’ll dump off (the ball) to my guy (I am defending). He’ll come back and block the shot. When you see a guy do stuff like that it gets everyone going. Also offensively, he doesn’t get enough credit for the things he does, screens, the big shots he’s made this year. Great to have him on your team; love playing with him.”

Despite the fatiguing effects of the last week, the Bulls took charge early with a 35-23 first quarter lead, remaining in seeming control leading 63-55 at halftime and building up that huge lead against another young, losing (7-31) team before the Spurs dipped into the Warriors play book with some of those pick and rolls that lured out a Bulls center to play a guard. With the Spurs making six threes in the third quarter, the Bulls suddenly found themselves in a 94 tie entering the fourth quarter.

And the nascent Spurs with an additional injection of threes to open the fourth.

“I know San Antonio has got a young team. They are developing a lot of guys. Victor Wembanyama didn't play tonight. I get all those things,” acknowledged Donovan. “But they're going to really test you. I thought Golden State did that to us (Friday) night, and the second half I didn't think we responded well. Today I thought we got tested and we responded well. Middle of that third quarter, up 16, a couple of turnovers, some bad possessions, gave up offensive rebounds, fouling. 

“We’ve got to get better, no question,” agreed Donovan. “But when you see what the guys went through physically, getting into the hotel, quick meeting before the game, having to muster up the emotional game yesterday with everything that's transpired with the Ring of Honor and just Golden State coming in. It was one of those things where you have to grind the game out. It wasn't going to be easy, and I just appreciate and respect the way they handled themselves in the fourth quarter, certainly. There's a lot of things we need to improve on, but when you get tested, you want to be able to respond and I thought we did coming out of last night's game.”

Just one of many tests to come, though the Bulls finally are passing more than they are failing.

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