TORONTO -- After the Chicago Bulls extended their season on Wednesday, executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas wanted to congratulate Alex Caruso. "AC still coming or no?" he asked a team staffer outside the visitors' locker room at Scotiabank Arena. Moments later, Caruso came running down the hallway, abuzz from their 109-105 victory against the Toronto Raptors in the play-in.
Caruso high-fived Karnisovas, shouted "Yessir!" and entered the locker room to a chorus of cheers. The elimination game, like the Bulls' 2022-23 season, was a bumpy ride. They were down 11 points at halftime, after Fred VanVleet made a halfcourt shot to beat the second-quarter buzzer, and the deficit ballooned to 19 less than three minutes into the third. They came back not only because of extraordinary free-throw defense from DeMar DeRozan's daughter Diar -- Toronto missed half of its 36 free throw attempts and Diar shrieked before all of them -- and a 39-point eruption from Zach LaVine, but because, with Caruso leading the way, they played to their defensive identity.
In 31 minutes, Caruso had three steals and three blocks. He also, late in the third quarter, drew an offensive foul on VanVleet in the backcourt. This was not exactly the turning point, as Chicago's 50-29 run in the final 16 1/2 minutes had already begun, but it took the air out of the building. The play directly led to a LaVine 3, which cut Toronto's lead to eight.
"I think that [third-quarter run] kind of shocked them a little bit and really gave us life and got us back into the game," center Nikola Vucevic said.
Halfway through the fourth, Caruso got his hands on a loose ball and immediately turned it into a layup. On the Bulls' next defensive possession, he made a perfect read against a set play designed to get OG Anunoby a lob and snatched the ball out of the air.
"That's probably my best attribute right now in my game," Caruso said. "It's being able to understand the other team's schemes, players' tendencies and then just competing. I compete at a high level. This is kind of my time of year. This is, at least, in my opinion, this is why I play basketball in the NBA. It's these games late in the year, where details and discipline matter."
From the All-Star break until the end of the regular season, Chicago had the best defense in the NBA. While the Raptors, whose defense was almost as good during that time, improved by adding rim protector Jakob Poeltl at the trade deadline, the Bulls did it a different way: They signed guard Patrick Beverley on the buyout market. Their small, new-ish starting lineup, with Beverley and Caruso next to LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic, outscored opponents by 14.7 points per 100 possessions and allowed a stifling 100.9 points per 100 possessions. (For reference, the Cleveland Cavaliers' league-best defense allowed 109.9 per 100.)
Chicago coach Billy Donovan has been comfortable with Caruso guarding power forwards (he was Pascal Siakam's primary defender) and Beverley switching onto bigs. Toronto coach Nick Nurse compared it to his team's starting lineup from 2019 to 2021, with VanVleet next to Kyle Lowry: "Everybody's like, 'You guys are so dinky,' but those guys both played about 6-6 on the block, even just 'cause of their strength and their IQ and their toughness."
"We're huge in heart," the 6-foot-2 Beverley said. "We might not be the tallest team, but we're real big in heart."
Donovan could have gone away from the small look against Toronto, a team full of big, long wings. Maybe he should have, since neither half started well for Bulls. But they made a push with the 6-foot-6 Derrick Jones Jr. playing "center" in a switch-everything lineup late in the third quarter, and they made a bigger push when with Caruso and Beverley creating chaos in the fourth. The Raptors had a massive advantage on the offensive glass, but Chicago down the stretch dominated the turnover battle and the transition game.
"We feed off those guys, man," DeRozan said, sitting next to LaVine at the podium. "We feed off 'em. It's contagious. It's amazing what they do. It's amazing how much pride they take in being defenders. And with that, with us being the leaders of this team, we gotta follow behind it, we gotta rally behind it. And it's amazing when you see 'em lock up, get steals, make big plays, sacrifice their body, screen-and-rolls, diving for the ball. It definitely gets us going."
There is some irony in Toronto's season ending at the hands of a team that is so handsy. The Raptors' whole deal is pressuring the ball, forcing turnovers and winning the possession game to make up for iffy shooting. The Bulls knocked them out despite shooting 7-for-26 (26.9%) from deep, and even their "good" halfcourt offense was kind of ugly: Instead of inviting Toronto to blitz their stars by running pick-and-rolls over and over, they often simply called for LaVine or DeRozan isolations and let their "two killers," as Caruso called them, bully their way to the basket.
Chicago was far from perfect -- Caruso may be a defensive genius, but he also fouled Siakam on a late 3-pointer up three -- and it would be well served to avoid digging a 19-point hole in Miami on Friday with a playoff berth one line. Once again, though, the Bulls will be up against a team that forces tons of turnovers, takes care of the ball, crashes the glass and shoots poorly. "It's gonna be a desperate game," Caruso said, so they'll need to have the "same mindset" that allowed them to steal a win in Toronto.
"Do or die," he said.