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Bulls vs. Cavaliers final score: Caruso’s back and so is the Chicago defense

Zach sat with a knee issue

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Chicago Bulls David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, a Chicago Bulls victory over a quality opponent!

During Alex Caruso’s first game back with Chicago in nearly two months, your Bulls held off the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers to eke out a 101-91 win at the United Center. DeMar DeRozan (25 points on an inefficient 9-of-26 shooting) and Nikola Vucevic (20 points, 14 rebounds) led the way on offense for Chicago. Vucevic even enjoyed some solid defensive moments to boot! Five Bulls would wind up in double figures. Caruso made his return to the floor for the first time in 22 games. Sadly, All-Star shooting guard Zach LaVine sat with knee soreness.

And we did indeed discover anew the ultimate indispensability of young AC Fresh. Caruso logged 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting from the floor, plus 4 assists, 4 steals, a block and a board in 29:12 of game action. Chicago was +9 with Caruso on the floor, and held an opponent to less than 100 points since... the last time Caruso was available!

With Zach sidelined and Caruso on a minutes restriction, head coach Billy Donovan opted to start rookie guard Ayo Dosunmu in starter Lonzo Ball’s stead (as he has been doing since Lonzo went down two months ago) and third-year combo guard Coby White in the place of LaVine.

The Cavaliers had plenty of absences, too. Cleveland was missing All-Star starting center Jarrett Allen (out indefinitely with a left middle finger fracture), starting forward Lauri Markkanen, oft-injured swingman Caris LeVert, and second-year wing Dylan Windler. Guard Collin Sexton was ruled out for the season after incurring a knee injury earlier this year. Cleveland strived with Sexton shelved, and it will be intriguing to see how the club’s front office, led by team president Koby Altman, opts to handle Sexton’s restricted free agency this summer.

Caruso was subbed in for DeRozan with 6:31 left in the first quarter, his first game action since January 21st. He entered the game to a standing ovation. The Bulls looked to get Vucevic going early, exploiting his significant weight advantage over Cavaliers rookie Evan Mobley, who in the absence of Allen is jumping center.

Chicago thrived with lots of fast-paced, active defense, including this slick AC block on Lamar Stevens:

DeRozan (8 points) and Vucevic (7 points) started off hot in the first quarter, but overall Chicago and Cleveland had a fairly even initial frame, with the Bulls taking a two-point advantage at the end of the period, 24-22.

Chicago then opened things up handily in the second quarter. Thanks to the savvy defensive play of Caruso and the offensive contributions of DeRozan, Derrick Jones Jr., Coby White and Tristan Thompson, the Bulls went on a 15-5 run to start the period (it was cumulatively a 21-5 run starting from near the end of the first quarter).

The Cavaliers responded with a little 7-0 run of their own. Both clubs exchanged buckets for a bit, before Chicago responded in kind with another 7-0 run. DeRozan, Vucevic and Coby White did a lot of the scoring damage to close out the quarter. Chicago led by double digits, 53-42, entering the halftime break. DeRozan and Dosunmu led the Bulls at the break, with DeMar nailing a buzzer-beater jumper to get up to 17 points in the half. Dosunmu had 10 points through the first two quarters. Here’s that DeMar jumper:

Chicago looked to push the pace throughout the first half, recording 13 fast-break points. The Bulls would ultimately finish with 19 fast break points for the evening. Tonight’s game marked just the fourth time this season that the Bulls had limited an opponent to less than 45 points in a game’s first half, and the first instance since January 3rd against the Magic.

Alex Caruso’s value doesn’t always show up in box scores, but his impact was clearly felt from the beginning of his minutes. Check out this excellent hockey pass to DeRozan, who then feeds Vooch with a nifty mid-air dish:

In the third quarter, the Bulls and Cavaliers scrapped. The Bulls did their darnedest to force turnovers and score off fast breaks. Chicago ultimately maintained its 11-point advantage, closing out with a 77-66 margin at the end of the quarter. Ayo got whistled for a flagrant-1 foul after his charge, Caruso’s 2020 Lakers teammate Rajon Rondo, twisted his ankle upon landing on the rookie’s foot during the act of shooting.

Meanwhile, DeMar was in his bag with some typical midrange pump-fakery:

Cavs All-Star point guard Darius Garland struggled to hold on to the ball and score efficiently throughout the contest, though that didn’t stop him from trying. He would finish with 25 points, albeit on just 9-of-24 shooting from the floor, seven rebounds, seven assists and six turnovers. Dosunmu and Caruso drew most of the coverage on Garland, and were able to pester him aplenty, especially in the first half.

The Bulls led by as much as 18 at one point in the fourth quarter, 84-66, before the Cavaliers went on an 11-2 run. The Cavaliers reduced Chicago’s edge to double digits in the fourth, 86-77. Donovan swapped in Caruso for Javonte Green, and allowed Dosunmu to play through his five fouls with six minutes remaining in regulation. The Bulls held on for the eventual 101-91 victory.

Chicago’s defense was totally reinvigorated with Caruso back. The Bulls played faster and more aggressive, and were able to do their darnedest to make Cavs stars Garland and Evan Mobley (who finished with 17 points on 8-of-17 shooting and seven rebounds) uncomfortable, though both players still had respectable nights.

6’4” tweener forward Javonte Green had a solid game on offense, though he struggled to contain the Cavs’ cadre of bigger forwards. He finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, but notched a team-worst -14 plus-minus. The Bulls really miss the size of injured second-year forward Patrick Williams, as nice as Javonte’s story has been this season. Dosunmu enjoyed another solid game, scoring 17 points and using five fouls to perturb Cleveland’s perimeter players. The 38th pick in the 2021 draft out of U of I seems destined to make an All-Rookie team. Former Cleveland champ Tristan Thompson looked okay in 14:26 of game action, helping spell Chicago’s small-ball bigs like Green and Derrick Jones Jr. with his bulk. He had five points and six rebounds.

As hosts Ricky O’Donnell and Jason Patt also wondered on their BaB podcast Cash Considerations, this victory begs the question: can the Bulls reach the 50-win this season, a goal that seemed pretty attainable prior to their rash of injuries in 2022? Chicago is now 41-26 with a fairly intimidating final 15 games on the horizon. A 9-6 record would be fairly doable if Chicago had its full compliment of players down the stretch, regardless of the opponent. With Caruso back, a Patrick Williams return seemingly on the horizon, and Zach seemingly not likely to be out long, the world could be the Bulls’ oyster once again. Lonzo, we’re pulling for ya.

The Bulls hit the road for a trio of games this week. Chicago could put together a nice little mini-win streak with a victory against the Sacramento Kings on Monday, in what would be their third straight. The schedule toughens up for the rest of the week, as Chicago will face off against two West powerhouses, the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns. Hopefully Zach will be back for some of that stretch.

On the other side of the draw, the defeat dropped the sixth-seeded Cavaliers to a 38-29 record on the year, dangerously close to falling into the play-in tournament bracket. As of this writing, the Toronto Raptors are nipping at Cleveland’s heels with a 36-30 record.