“We’re just kind of finding ways to win,” the Bulls’ Alex Caruso said. “And I think that’s the sign of a good team. And I think we have a lot of ways to get better. That’s the most encouraging thing to me.” | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
But they’ll have to do it without Nikola Vucevic, who was placed in the league’s health and safety protocol, and would be sidelined at least the next 10 days.
The Bulls left for the West Coast on Thursday a body short.
A big body at that, as it was confirmed that Nikola Vucevic was placed in the league’s health and safety protocol, and would be sidelined at least the next 10 days.
Not exactly the way to start off a difficult trip, but all was not lost. Not when what Alex Caruso does so well fits neatly in a suitcase.
The guard is not the only Bull that is built for trips west, but he’s definitely the poster child.
On nights that the shot is not falling, an opposing player gets hot, the lineup is undermanned like it will be or teammates are just out of sync, grit and hustle still travel.
That’s why this upcoming five-team west coast trip isn’t as daunting as they usually have been for the Bulls the last five years.
“We’re just kind of finding ways to win,” Caruso said. “And I think that’s the sign of a good team. And I think we have a lot of ways to get better. That’s the most encouraging thing to me.”
What is most encouraging for the Bulls on this trip? A tone that Caruso and Lonzo Ball continue setting.
In beating both the Nets and Mavericks in back-to-back games, the Bulls did find different ways as Caruso said, but there was also a common formula.
Ball harassing the opposing team’s best backcourt scorer on the defensive end, and Caruso seemingly harassing everybody else.
Caruso not only tied a career-high with six steals in the Wednesday win over Dallas, but entered Thursday leading the entire league in that category, averaging 2.6 steals per game. By the way, the key reserve was also tied for second in the league in deflections with 4.3 per game.
Both players will be tested in the next week, with the Bulls opening up the trip against the 10-1 Warriors on Friday night, playing both Los Angeles teams on back-to-back nights on Sunday and Monday, off to Portland to face their dangerous backcourt on Wednesday, and finishing up the trip in Denver.
A schedule of horror in previous years. Now? Just a measuring stick to see if the 8-3 Bulls are a serious threat in the Eastern Conference.
“You play the teams that are on your schedule,” guard Zach LaVine said of the trip. “You can’t be scared to be playing these teams because you want to be playing them later on in the season. It’s a challenge to see where you are as a group and how much you can get better. I think that’s the mentality you have to have.”
A mentality the Bulls should have based on what they’ve done the last week, and how they’ve played in the fourth quarter of games throughout most of the early part of this season.
Not only has the Bulls defense been key in the eight victories, but so has this group’s ability to finish games. Again, a strength that will be tested on this trip, but usually travels well.
The Bulls lead the NBA in fourth-quarter field goal percentage (50.5%), plus-minus in that quarter (plus-4.2), first in free throws made (6.5 per game), second in free-throw attempts (7.5 per game), and tied for second in fourth-quarter scoring at 28.3 points per game.
Just to get a feel of what this team was last season? They were 25th in fourth-quarter plus-minus (minus-1.1) and 19th in scoring in that final stanza at 26.8 points per game.
Playing defense at a high level, and now understanding how to win games in the fourth? Two very impressive turnarounds.
“It says a lot,” veteran DeMar DeRozan said of where the Bulls sit. “Everybody wants something out of this. Everybody puts the work in. It’s just not us talking about it. It’s us doing all the physical things as well. Taking every single day serious. Understanding, whenever we get a chance to come in, if it’s to watch film, to work on our mistakes, to try to tighten up something, it’s a constant understanding of it’s bigger than just winning a game. It’s the long run.”