Alex Caruso ready to return, and Bulls’ defense needs him


Caruso ready to return, and Bulls’ defense needs him originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Alex Caruso was on the doorstep of a return.

A little more than two weeks removed from spraining his left foot during a late-December win over the Rockets, the Chicago Bulls’ defensive dynamo was cleared to practice on Jan. 5, and had every intention of playing in the team’s Jan. 7 game against the Washington Wizards.

But upon arriving at the Advocate Center on the former date, a positive test for COVID-19 derailed those plans.

“Just bad timing. Unfortunate circumstance,” Caruso said after the Bulls’ Wednesday morning shootaround. “That’s what happens sometimes. Really just about getting through it, getting over it, and making something of it.”

Now, Caruso truly is back, and set to return to the lineup against the Cavaliers on Wednesday. Between a strained hamstring suffered in the first week of December, the foot sprain, a week-long pause on Bulls game between Dec. 12 and 19 because of their COVID-19 outbreak, and his entry into health and safety protocols, Caruso has appeared in just four games since Dec. 4 – and exited two of those before the end of the first quarter due to injuries.

While the time off afforded opportunity to heal some bumps and bruises, he called the overarching experience “pretty frustrating.”

Now?

“I feel good. I know I said that last time everybody talked to me (after recovering from the hamstring injury). But I really do feel good,” Caruso said. “The only way to really get back in shape is just to dive into the games and play. So I’m ready to get back to that.”

To say the Bulls have missed Caruso would be an understatement. In his most recent 13-game absence, the team ranks 24th in the NBA in defensive rating, dropping them from ninth in defense on Christmas Day to 19th as of this writing.

Head coach Billy Donovan has been careful not to attribute that downturn to the team’s recently rotten injury luck, but it’s no doubt played a factor. Lonzo Ball missed seven of the aforementioned 13 games, and the team hasn’t yet publicly placed a return timeline on the left knee bone contusion that continues to hold him out of games. Javonte Green (who’s missed the last nine with a groin ailment) and Derrick Jones Jr. (who’s missed the last three with a right knee hyperextension injury) also remain sidelined.

Story continues

Along with Caruso, the always-energetic Tyler Cook, who’s missed eight games with a sprained ankle, is expected back against the Cavaliers. Their returns may not solve everything, and the context of Caruso’s extended absence prompted Donovan to stress on Monday that the team will have a ramp-up plan for his minutes when he does return.

But his point of attack presence, infectious energy and communicative command certainly won’t hurt.

“It’s the NBA, guys are good. If you don’t show up and have that mentality every night, NBA players, professionals, they’re here for a reason,” Caruso said of the Bulls’ defensive slide. “It’s just part of building habits. We’ve made good strides, we’re about halfway through the year, a little over halfway. I think we’re in a good spot where we are right now. But we’re not a finished product. We’re gonna keep getting better, keep striving to get better.”

They’d better, because the Bulls enter Wednesday’s game losers of four straight, and five of their last six.

“Maybe not that. But just losing. I don’t like losing,” Caruso added when asked if the team’s defensive regression has made him more anxious to get back. “Regardless of if I’m playing or not, it’s my team. I’m part of the team. I want them to win whether I’m playing or not playing. We didn’t have much success the last couple of games, so I’m just itching to get back and win.”

Indeed, he’ll be able to impact winning more on the court than sequestered at home, where he said he drank in every minute of the Bulls’ recent stretch – often up on his feet.

“I didn’t have that competitive outlet for almost a month,” Caruso said. “And for a guy who, 27 (years old), for almost 20 years of my life I’ve played basketball. I’m a winner. I’ve been structured, wired to, January and December I’m playing basketball. I’m competing and playing. To not have that was a struggle for me.”

It’s been a struggle for the Bulls, too. Wednesday’s game will offer the first indication of whether his return can bring the beginning of a bounceback.

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