Only three times has Dunleavy played on a team that’s qualified for the playoffs. That’s a lot of losing - too much for a man who played three years of college basketball at Duke on teams with a combined record of 95-13 and won a 2001 national title.
When his time finally came on Friday night at Verizon Center against the Wizards, with Chicago down two games in the series and fighting for its season on the road in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal, Dunleavy was ready. He scored 35 points, one shy of his career high, and helped the Bulls survive with a 100-97 victory.
“These chances have been few and far between for me,” Dunleavy said. “But like I told somebody this morning, especially on the road in the playoffs, 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 got a chance to beat the home team.”
That’s exactly what happened in just his 12th career playoff game. Dunleavy’s never even made it out of the first round in previous playoff series with Indiana and Milwaukee. Entering this series with the Wizards he’d experienced just one playoff win. Now he has two. And it couldn’t have come at a better time for Chicago, which was reeling after losing two close games at home this week.
“He saved us tonight,” Bulls guard Jimmy Butler said.
Dunleavy nailed eight 3-pointers on 10 attempts and shot 12-for-19 from the field overall. With the Wizards’ attention elsewhere early – on Chicago guard D.J. Augustin and forwards Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson – there was just enough room for Dunleavy to thrive. The talk in practice on Saturday was finding ways to get Dunleavy open in more catch-and-shoot situations. That’s exactly what happened.
“If we make quick decisions, it’s hard to lock into people,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “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.”
Dunleavy found his rhythm from the start with an early finger roll and a short jumper. But back-to-back 3-pointers later in the first quarter cut a 15-8 Washington lead to 15-14. Another three in the second quarter allowed Dunleavy to employ a pump fake, score on a layup and draw a foul for a traditional 3-point play.
He had 16 points at halftime and in a television interview, Wizards guard Bradley Beal vowed Dunleavy wouldn’t score again. With his team quickly falling behind by nine points, Dunleavy hit a free throw, tipped home a shot and drilled a 25-footer for six points in 97 seconds. So much for that.
“That man was hot. He was 8-for-10 from three,” Beal said. “He was in the zone, man. I guess the hoop was like an ocean to him.”
Beal said that Washington coach Randy Wittman had warned his team Chicago might try to free Dunleavy for open looks. But some sloppy decisions on when to switch defenders left him open early. By the time the Wizards found themselves in the fourth quarter, holding Dunleavy to four shots, including a blocked 3-pointer with 1:07 to go by Trevor Ariza, it was too late. Dunleavy wasn’t worried about going cold late or a few turnovers. He’d already done his damage.
“I don’t really think that way. Just trying to hunt your shot, trying to find it,” Dunleavy said. “Missed a couple, was disappointed in myself, especially that last one. It was deep, but I really thought it was in. Otherwise, no. You just keep firing away.”