WASHINGTON -- The man who saved the Chicago Bulls' season, Mike Dunleavy, is an unlikely hero, not even trusted to be on the floor in the fourth quarter, when his coach values defense over shooting. He'd never had a night like this in his natural-born life. You go to Las Vegas on Dunleavy getting 35 in a road playoff game. His playoff career high was 17. In two games to start this series, both played on his home court, Dunleavy had scored 20 points, total.
Basketball people, particularly coaches and former players, love to talk about defense being the almighty. No amount of great defense, short of a shutout, is ever enough to satisfy them. And it's entirely true that the Bulls' defensive efficiency in those first two games in Chicago was so bad it would have ranked them 29th in the regular season, behind every team in the league except pitiful Milwaukee. And it's entirely true that holding the Wizards to 43 percent shooting in a 100-97 Game 3 victory on Friday was a dramatic improvement over Games 1 and 2 in Chicago.
Dunleavy won this game for the Bulls. He won it by hitting 12-of-19 shots, including 8-of-10 3-point attempts. He scored a four-point play that Washington's John Wall said absolutely changed the flow and momentum of the game. He hit shots so deep it compromised the Wizards' defense, helped the Bulls hit 48 percent of their shots for the game, and allowed Chicago to survive and climb back into a series even though it committed 17 turnovers and unthinkably goofy mistakes right to the very end. And there's no telling what will happen from here, what with the availability of Nene in question after an early fourth-quarter confrontation that got him ejected (and we'll get back to that in a moment).
Dunleavy won Game 3 for the Bulls because he dented (finally) a Wizards defense that had its way with this series for two games. It was the four-point play with four minutes to play in the third quarter that finished wiping out Washington's nine-point lead and led Wall to say afterward, "The turning point of the game was when we were up nine ... and I didn't move the ball well enough and we got stagnant. ... They hit some big shots and that four-point play really changed it."
Dunleavy changed it, putting the Bulls ahead 63-62 with that play and keeping them in a back-and-forth mode. Dunleavy hit the long 3-pointer to start the fourth quarter, too, that put his team up 75-69. And the No. 2 star of the game for the Bulls, undoubtedly, was Jimmy Butler, whose 3-pointer with 24.9 seconds left broke a tie and gave the Bulls just enough of a cushion to survive an unimaginable mistake by Tony Snell, the kind that justifies coaches not even wanting to speak to rookies during the playoffs.
It's not that Dunleavy is a serious threat to do this again; hell, he'd never done it before in the postseason. He won the one game in this series the Bulls had to have to maintain any hope of winning. He, at the very least, is a threat the Wizards' defense has to respect. And it's up to the Wizards not to react to Dunleavy being open and running off screens and double-screens. One of the things the Bulls figured out, in going down 0-2, is that Bradley Beal had way too much energy in the fourth quarter of Game 2, particularly. Butler had to run Beal ragged defensively. And while Beal did score 25 points Friday, at least the Bulls made him shoot 4-for-11 in the second half after he went 4-for-7 in the first half. And if Dunleavy can occupy Trevor Ariza, it takes the 6-foot-8 swingman off of 6-foot D.J. Augustin and some of the pressure to score off teammate
Kirk Hinrich, who was so much better in Game 3, taking only four shots (hitting two) and recording five assists and five rebounds to just one turnover.
The Bulls had talked on the days off about creating "more catch-and-shoot situations" for Dunleavy, he explained afterward. "I got a couple of layups early and that got me going. I just had one of those nights. The ball felt good coming off my hand. ... They were screaming for me, passing it to me." And Dunleavy did what shooters do when they're feeling they can't miss: he kept firing away, just as his coaches and teammates screamed for him to do.
And who knows what's possible now that the availability of Nene is uncertain. It's Rod Thorn's call in New York as to whether Nene's grab of Butler's head was closer to a punch, and whether his two-handed grab of Butler's neck warrants a suspension in addition to the fourth-quarter ejection. Certainly, an ejection would have been the only thing coming from the commissioner's office 10, 15 years ago. But there were former players in attendance Friday night who feel that the NBA's decreased tolerance of this kind of physical confrontation is going to lead the league to sit Nene for Game 4. There was also some question immediately after the game as to whether Marcin Gortat left the bench during the skirmish, which by the book would call for a suspension. But a television timeout was called as the scrum developed, which makes it pretty cloudy as to where Gortat (or any others) are allowed to wander and when, once the action has been officially stopped by a timeout. Again, a study of the coach's videotape and interpretation will be the order of the morning in Thorn's office.
There's nothing the Bulls would like more than to play the Wizards without Nene, and nothing the Wizards would like more than another crack at home at the Bulls now that Wall (23 points, seven assists, four steals, one turnover but two big missed foul shots) and Beal (25 points, five assists, no turnovers) seem to be moving toward playoff mastery.
Where, in the case of the offense-challenged Bulls, will points come from Sunday, and can they find enough of them without Dunleavy having a second fantasy night?
"Mike's been around a long time," coach Tom Thibodeau said, "and had a terrific career. ... Sometimes people forget how good he is, and probably the only thing that was slowing him down were injuries. One year in Indiana he averaged 19 points a game, so he's a good player. And he does whatever you ask him to do to help the team win. You can start him, bring him in off the bench. You can play him big minutes, short minutes."
No matter, Dunleavy has become a focal point of an increasingly combative series that, heading into Sunday's Game 4, has the kind of uncertainty and surprising subplots that even when the games are far from perfect create fascinating athletic theater.