Mavericks’ Tim Hardaway Jr. says ‘Bulls are back,’ but Alex Caruso believes improved Chicago not quite there yet

CHICAGO — After the Chicago Bulls racked up yet another quality victory Wednesday night — the latest, a 117-107 triumph over the Dallas Mavericks at the United Center that moved them to 8-3 on the season — their opponent took note of the way this new-look team has meshed so quickly.

“All I can say is, the Bulls are back, man,” Mavericks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said.

After beginning the season 4-0 against teams that missed the postseason a year ago, the Bulls have continued their fast start as their schedule has toughened. This week they’ve won back-to-back games against the Brooklyn Nets and Mavericks and are currently tied with the Washington Wizards for the best record in the Eastern Conference.

And although Bulls guard Alex Caruso said he thinks it’s too early to make any grand proclamations himself, he still is encouraged by the way they’re taking care of business.

“We have games here and there where we’re just kind of finding ways to win, and I think that’s the sign of a good team,” said Caruso, who won a title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2019-20. “I think we have a lot of ways to get better. That’s probably the most encouraging thing for me.

“Eleven games into the season, I don’t think you can say anybody’s back, especially for the prestige of the Bulls. They won three championships in a row twice. Being back, that’s a big statement.”

But the Bulls, who have not made the postseason since the 2016-17 season, are routinely making big statements on the court. They put an exclamation point on this game near the end of the fourth quarter with a highlight-reel, 360-degree dunk from Zach LaVine after a crosscourt, overhead pass from Lonzo Ball on a play started after one of Caruso’s career-high-tying six steals.

“Zo’s an incredible passer, QB1 throwing that pass up to Zach,” Caruso said. “And then Zach did what he does.”

Chicago shot 50.6% from the field and 48.4% from 3, with 26 assists to just 11 turnovers.

Even though the Bulls’ leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan, struggled from the field and ended up with just 17 points, the rest of the team stepped up around him. LaVine scored 23 points. Ball had 21 and made 7 of 10 of his 3-point attempts. Their defense held Mavericks star Luka Doncic to just 6-of-18 shooting for 20 points.

The Bulls are in the middle of a grueling stretch against teams that made the postseason last year and will begin a five-game West Coast road trip on Friday against the Warriors, who are an NBA-best 10-1.

But as the Bulls keep notching quality wins, they continue to receive respect from their opponents.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Ball said. “It’s a brand-new team. Trying to build a new culture here; 8-3 is not too bad.”

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