WASHINGTON— Between his continued shooting difficulties and a fourth-quarter altercation, Jimmy Butler was having a rough Friday night at the Verizon Center, but all of the negatives of the evening were erased when he knocked down a late three-pointer and clutch free throws in the final minute of the game to give the Bulls the lead and an eventual 100-97 Game 3 win over the Wizards in their first-round playoff series, leading to a more manageable 2-1 deficit heading into Sunday afternoon’s Game 4.
An aggressive Mike Dunleavy Jr. (35 points, 8-for-10 three point shooting) from the outset boded well for the Bulls, but the Wizards were able to jump out to an early cushion behind a balanced attack. The perimeter trio of All-Star point guard John Wall (23 points, seven assists, four steals), second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal (25 points, five assists, four rebounds) and veteran small forward Trevor Ariza (16 points, 10 rebounds) led the way for the hosts in front of their raucous crowd, though a double-figure opening period from Dunleavy mitigated some of the damage.
Two fouls apiece on All-Star center Joakim Noah (six points, nine rebounds, four assists), the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, and starting floor general Kirk Hinrich didn’t help matters, but the Bulls managed to stay within striking distance. Carlos Boozer (14 points, five rebounds) was effective in first quarter, scoring on the interior, though the Bulls still trailed at the conclusion of the first quarter, 30-28.
A 5-0 Washington run to start the second stanza saw Wizards’ big man Nene (10 points, four rebounds) get into the act, but the Bulls weathered the storm to keep it a close-knit affair, eventually taking their first lead of the game on a Dunleavy three-point play. Backup point guard D.J. Augustin (13 points, seven assists) and sixth man Taj Gibson (13 points, four rebounds) provided their usual sparks off the bench, helping the Bulls extend their winning margin.
The Wizards would close out the first half in strong fashion, however, going on a 9-0 spurt, fueled by that same outside triumvirate to seize control of the contest. At the intermission, the Bulls faced a 51-48 deficit.
After the break, the Wizards’ edge ballooned, as rugged center Marcin Gortat (13 points, 11 rebounds) went to work inside. But in a familiar pattern, the Bulls rallied back and behind Dunleavy’s stellar scoring effort with his former college teammate Boozer serving as his sidekick, the visitors kept pace with the home team through the third quarter, heading into the final stanza with a 72-69 advantage.
Dunleavy’s hot hand carried over into the fourth quarter, helping the Bulls create some separation between them and the Wizards early in the period. Washington then fought back, both to close the gap and literally.
Already an increasingly physical contest, with hard fouls on both sides, Nene and Butler (15 points) made contact and proceeded to get into a brief, yet fierce skirmish. A faceoff between the two players was followed by the literal bumping of heads and Nene putting his hands on Butler’s neck, resulting in his ejection and a technical foul on the Bulls swingman.
After the commotion died down, the Bulls seemed to benefit emotionally, again building a relatively comfortable lead, but predictably in this back-and-forth affair—just as interesting was Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau trying to balance his late-game rotation, as he shuffled Dunleavy, Hinrich and Augustin—the Wizards made a push, with Beal tying the game at 86 apiece heading into the game’s stretch run. A quick duel between sharpshooters Beal and Dunleavy ensured and after the dust settled, the Bulls trailed by two, 91-89, with 1:36 to play.
After Butler split a pair of attempts from the charity stripe and Gibson did the same after a subsequent foul, the game was again knotted up and both teams would go scoreless for a stretch until Butler, who had struggled to score all series, knocked down a clutch three-pointer with 24.2 seconds remaining, giving the Bulls a 94-91 lead.
Ariza missed a triple on the ensuing possession, but following a timeout, an errant Dunleavy inbounds pass resulted in a Wall steal, after which he was fouled by Butler in transition. The young floor general knocked down a pair of foul shots to make it a one-point affair, then Butler was fouled—though there didn’t appear to be much contact by Wizards backup big man Trevor Booker on the play—and hit two free throws of his own with 12.2 seconds on the clock, making it a 96-93 game in the Bulls’ favor.
Washington strategically used fouls in the waning seconds of the game and when Gibson missed the second of two shots that would have made it a two-possession contest, the Wizards had a chance to tie, but fumbled the ball on the defensive rebound, meaning Sunday’s contest wouldn’t be an elimination game.