Bulls guard Alex Caruso doing more than paying ‘price of admission’

MILWAUKEE – It wasn’t just Billy Donovan trying to play head games with coachspeak.

He wanted his Bulls players to understand the needed physicality of a playoff series against the defending NBA Champions, the “price of admission” – as Donovan called it – each would have to be willing to pay.

Alex Caruso was not only willing to pay his own way after the Game 1 loss, but threw his wallet on the bar, gathered his teammates around him, and yelled “next round is on me!”

“He’s the anchor to our defense,” veteran DeMar DeRozan said of Caruso after the Game 2 win on Wednesday. “Bringing the intensity, being vocal. I think I told him not too long ago I lean off him for his energy defensively. Just him being vocal. He’s a leader when it comes to that. He gets me going, even if he’s not talking to me directly there’s a lot that I take from it. I kind of take on that challenge, especially when you see him go out there and competing against whoever it is. If it’s Giannis [Antetokounmpo], Jrue [Holiday], whoever it is, you want to match that same intensity as him.”

Almost impossible to do, especially in the wake of Caruso’s latest gritty piece of artwork.

Two of the team’s seven steals, two blocks, including one on 7-footer Brook Lopez, a huge offensive rebound with 35.1 seconds left and the game still in the balance, and then drawing the game-ending charge on Antetokounmpo 30 seconds later.

Then factor in the combo guard’s 10 assists, three three-pointers, and his game-high plus-16 in plus/minus, and just like that the “Caru-Show” tour bus spoiled the night for the home crowd, packed up the bus, and drove back to Chicago filled with a new confidence in a best-of-seven series now tied at 1-1.

And Caruso’s attitude about the somewhat shocking Game 2 win?

“Go to Game 3,” Caruso said very matter-of-factly. “We gotta win three more times. Lot more games to play.”

The perfect attitude for a Bulls team that is filled with playoff inexperience. Besides Caruso, only Tristan Thompson has kissed a Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of a season. Thompson, however, is only a role player for this team, while Caruso is the head of the defensive snake.

What they have in common is both being disciples of LeBron James.

According to Caruso, the championship he won with James two years ago with the Lakes taught him the importance of embracing the details. Whether it’s a game plan or an opponent’s tendencies through film study.

That was all on display in Game 2, as well.

As good as Caruso was, Donovan’s defensive game plan was masterful. Not only because of the schemes, but the way they changed from possession to possession.

Yes, Antetokounmpo often had a wall of Bulls players built in front of him when trying to attack the paint, but it was also the way the Bulls blitzed certain Bucks players depending on where they were on the floor, and then other times look like a blitzing double-team was coming, only to pull it off.

It left veteran players like Holiday and Khris Middleton looking uncertain and confused, evident by the 10 combined turnovers for the two.

Caruso was the voice behind a lot of the defensive calls, but Donovan was the architect of the controlled chaos.

“I think if you show the same thing over and over and over they kind of get a beat on it, so we’ve tried to sprinkle some things in where we give guys some latitude and freedom [on defense] to understand what we’re trying to get accomplished,” Donovan said. “Sometimes faking, sometimes going … we obviously cleaned up some things coming out of Game 1.”

Made easier with Caruso’s IQ and voice.

“He’s just really smart out there,” Donovan added of Caruso. “He’s going to give you everything he has.”

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