Alex Caruso’s injury puts a spotlight on the Chicago Bulls’ defensive struggles in a 109-77 drubbing by the Indiana Pacers

Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis (11) dunks on Bulls guard Coby White (0) during the second half at the United Center on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. The Bulls lost 109-77. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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Julia Poe Chicago Tribune (TNS)

CHICAGO — The Chicago Bulls learned what they can — and can’t — do without Alex Caruso in a 109-77 drubbing by the Indiana Pacers.

Caruso was ruled out with a bruised left wrist hours before tipoff Monday night at the United Center. Coach Billy Donovan said the injury nagged the guard for several games, and he aggravated the wrist by catching himself while taking a charge against the New York Knicks on Sunday.

The loss raised one of the most challenging tactical questions for the Bulls: Can this defense maintain its breakneck rigor without Caruso serving as its metronome?

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Caruso’s absence wasn’t the only cause of the Bulls’ off night. They were playing the second of a back-to-back fresh off a grueling five-game West Coast trip, and the exhaustion was both visible and understandable. All-Stars Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan were both out of sorts with the ball, combining for seven turnovers and only 35 points.

“I don’t know how much Alex would have made a difference tonight, to be quite honest,” Donovan said. “We didn’t shoot the ball. We didn’t defend well enough. I don’t know if one person could have made up all that.”

But the game highlighted several key areas the Bulls should shore up to thrive with and without their defensive leader on the court.

The Bulls defense directly feeds their ability to score. They can fall into a rut with their half-court offense, leaning too heavily on isolation plays between DeRozan and LaVine.

Transition play breaks up that monotony, and defense — whether through steals, rebounds or simply busted plays — is the most consistent spark for those full-court runs. The Bulls average 20.2 points off turnovers, the third-highest number in the league. Points off turnovers make up nearly 19% of the team’s total offense.

A drop-off in defensive-fueled scoring against the Pacers stung the Bulls on an overall stagnant scoring night. They finished with seven fast-break points on a rare night with more turnovers (nine) than steals (six).

“We were just playing against their half-court defense all game,” LaVine said. “If it wasn’t taking the ball out of the net from them making a shot, it was taking it out of the net from a free throw. You’re not going to get fast-break points if you don’t get any stops.”

Without Caruso, the Bulls also lost one of their best counters to a teamwide lack of size — the double team.

The absence of Nikola Vučević already forced the Bulls to adopt a small-ball defensive strategy. Isolated traps became a strong suit for the Bulls throughout the previous six games during Vučević’s bout with COVID-19.

Caruso and Lonzo Ball are keenly tuned to pick the most efficient timing to trigger a double team. This timing allows the pair to exceed its stature against larger players. Against the Knicks for instance, the pair studied power forward Julius Randle’s proficiency at passing out of two-man coverage, then tailored its traps accordingly to close several beats later after Randle had exhausted his outlet options.

Without Caruso, the Bulls double teams lost their bite. The Pacers started their pair of 6-foot-11 power forwards — Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis — and rotated the towering duo to hammer the Bulls in the paint for a combined 33 points and 21 rebounds.

Poor shooting negated some strong defensive stands by the Bulls, who shot 36.5% from the field, 21.4% from 3-point range and even faltered at the free-throw line at 60% (9 of 15).

“We’re not getting the game back, but there is a standard and an expectation we expect to play to, and certainly tonight was not that,” Donovan said. “How do we get from here to there in terms of becoming a better team? … Nights like this happen. If it catapults us going forward to make us better than OK, great. But if it’s not something that helps us, then it’s a missed opportunity.”

Donovan switched his focus to development in the fourth quarter, giving players such as Matt Thomas, Troy Brown Jr. and Alize Johnson some needed minutes to bear the final brunt of the 32-point clobbering.

Caruso’s return timeline is unclear. Donovan said X-rays are necessary but the guard could travel with the Bulls to Houston and Orlando for games Wednesday and Friday.

The Bulls could be bolstered by the return of Vučević by the end of this week. The center will travel with the team after being cleared from COVID-19 isolation protocol over the weekend. Although Vučević still awaits team doctor approval to return, Donovan and Vučević’s teammates are hopeful he’ll make a speedy comeback.

“He’s one of the main pieces of our team,” LaVine said. “Hopefully he can get back in shape pretty quickly. It’ll be great to have him back, get some size back, get our All-Star big man back. … It’ll be good to get him back out there, get that chemistry going again.”

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