WASHINGTON—From the outset of Friday’s 100-97 Game 3 win over the Wizards at the Verizon Center, Mike Dunleavy Jr. was feeling it.
The veteran sharpshooter came out of the gates aggressively looking to score and by the time the dust settled, he had 35 points on 12-for-19 shooting, including 8-for-10 from three-point range. This from a guy who has barely been a factor in the series—sans the third quarter of Game 1—has very little playoff experience and hadn’t even been in Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s late-game rotation.
“Coach mentioned some stuff yesterday that would get me more catch-and-shoot situations and we did that tonight. I got a couple easy layups early on and it was just one of those nights,” Dunleavy said. “Tonight, obviously I had it. The ball felt good off my hand and guys did a great job of screening for me and passing to me.
“These chances have been few and far between for me, but like I told somebody this morning, especially on the road in the playoffs, these are situations where you can thrive. It’s a hostile environment and I like that. I like being in an opposing arena, where everybody’s pulling against you and you’ve got a chance to beat the home team,” he went on to say. “I think everybody wants to be out there down the stretch, but there’s only five guys that can and we’ve got a bunch of guys that can contribute and play, and he’s probably got a tough decision sometimes with who to go with. But with making shots tonight and stuff like that, he went with me and always stay ready.
“It just feels good to get a win. It’s been a rough series. We’ve been in positions to win a couple games, didn’t get them, come here and hang on for a victory, that’s the biggest thing, whether I score 35 points or zero. I’m just happy we won.”
Thibodeau had been going more to the small-ball perimeter trio of backup point guard D.J. Augustin and starting floor general Kirk Hinrich in an undersized backcourt, with swingman Jimmy Butler playing small forward in this series against a big Washington team. But Dunleavy’s performance not only encouraged the coach to play the veteran more, but make sure he continued to get shots.
“When I saw them going in, I said, ‘You know what? Let’s try to keep going to him.’ And the game tells you what shots you’re going to get, so if they’re over-helping in one particular area, maybe that opens up and other. They’re a really good defensive team, so you have to take the shots that you’re getting. You go into a game with the understanding that D.J.’s going to get a lot of attention, Taj is going to get a lot of attention. But if we make quick decisions, it’s hard to lock into people. I thought our bigs did a good job of screening for him and our guards did a good job of delivering the ball on target,” Thibodeau explained. “Mike’s been around a long time and he’s had a terrific career. He’s a great pro and sometimes people forget he good he is, and probably the only thing that has slowed him down are injuries. One year in Indiana, he averaged 19 points per game, so he’s a good player and he’s been relatively healthy, and he does whatever you ask him to do to help your team win. You can start him, you can bring him off the bench, you can play him big minutes, short minutes. He just goes out there and he does his job. He can really pass the ball and he can really shoot the ball. But he does a lot of other things, as well. He screens well, his team defense is very good.”
Although Dunleavy wasn’t aware of it at the time, at halftime, Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal made a “guarantee” that the Bulls veteran wouldn’t score anymore in the second half during a televised walk-off interview. At the time, Dunleavy only had 16 points, going on to pour in another 19 after the intermission.
“No, we don’t watch TV at halftime,” Dunleavy quipped, when asked if he knew of Beal’s proclamation. “It didn’t have any impact on the game. I just came out in the second half and had some good looks.”
Bulls sixth man Taj Gibson took the news less in stride.
“[Beal] said what? Today? We’re not feeding into that. We’re just about focusing our team. We’re not about going to the media, taking shots or anything. We’re just focused on the task at hand and trying to get W’s. We’re still down in the series. It’s 2-1,” Gibson said. “The way [Dunleavy] he was shooting the bal, he was just locked in. He’s a veteran, he’s capable of having games like that. That’s what playoff basketball is all about. Guys just stepping up when their number is called and that’s what he did.”
While he was pleased with his outing, the even-keeled Dunleavy isn’t taking anything for granted, with the Bulls still down a game in the series heading into Sunday’s Game 4.
“Tonight was just about coming out, bouncing back, which we’ve done all year long. Just get a win to keep ourselves in the series and now we’ve got another crack at it on Sunday,” he said. “We’ve got to get Sunday, for sure. No question. It’s a quick turnaround, one o’clock start. We put ourselves in a hole, we’re starting to dig ourselves out, but we’re not near there yet, so we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”