The Forgotten Bull: How Mike Dunleavy Quietly Helped Keep Chicago's Season Alive

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The Forgotten Bull: How Mike Dunleavy Quietly Helped Keep Chicago's Season Alive
Andrew Nelles/Associated Press

Nothing has gone according to plan for the Chicago Bulls this season, and offseason import Mike Dunleavy has found himself at the heart of that chaos.

Yet, that turbulence hasn't caused the Bulls or their new sharpshooter to lose sight of their goals.

It's starting to seem like nothing will.

 

Bloodied But Undeterred

Chicago's opponents are typically the ones leaving games battered and bruised, but it was Dunleavy who left with the biggest battle scar after the Bulls' 111-87 win Thursday night over the Houston Rockets at United Center.

While snuffing out a Rockets second-quarter fast break by drawing a charge from Chandler Parsons, Dunleavy took an elbow just above his right eye. The collision sent him sprawling to the floor, opening a blood-gushing gash upon contact.

He quickly headed back to the locker room, a stream of Bulls red blood following him each step of the way. That might have been reason enough for some players to call it a night.

It wasn't for Dunleavy, because he's a hockey player proud member of one of the toughest teams in the business.

"That just pissed Dunleavy off," as NBC Sports' Kurt Helin put it.

He returned to action after intermission, 10 stitches having taken the place of that nasty cut. The team trainers hadn't simply patched him up, though—they'd flipped a switch. Following a scoreless first half, he returned with a vengeance:

He pumped in 21 second-half points, 18 of which came during a third quarter that saw Chicago stretch an eight-point advantage to an insurmountable 27-point edge.

"That was very impressive and I think it inspired the team," Joakim Noah said, via Steve Aschburner of NBA.com. "He had a huge knot on his head. Looking like [EvanderHolyfield – the white version. And just coming out there, putting on a new jersey and gutting it out in the second half."

That seems to be the way this franchise operates, rolling with the punches (or elbows, in this case) and adjusting on the fly.

 

Consistency Through Change

Dunleavy is no exception, contributing in ways he might not ever have imagined:

Brought in on a budget two-year, $6.5 million deal to be a tertiary role player, he's since seen the loss of stars he was supposed to support (Derrick Rose by injury, Luol Deng by trade).

What was meant to be a part-time floor-spacing gig has now become a full-time position with an expanding assignment list. He'd long ago signed off on doing as little or as much as was needed, but he may not have understood at the time just how literal coach Tom Thibodeau's interpretation of those words would be:

Dunleavy hasn't actually been pressed into equipment duty—at least, not that we've heard—but he has had to carry this offense at times.

While his three-point percentage has dropped nearly six percentage points from last season (37.0 down from 42.8), he still has the second-best perimeter mark of Thibodeau's regulars (trailing only D.J. Augustin's 41.8).

The mere threat of him as a shooter has been a lift for this offense, as have his high basketball IQ and willingness to make the extra pass if needed. Chicago's 96.9 offensive rating when he sits is the third-lowest off-split on the team (ahead of Noah's 94.4 and Jimmy Butler's 96.8).

"Obviously, Mike is a very good catch-and-shoot player and provides space for your post-up players," Thibodeau said earlier this season, via Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. "But he feeds the post extremely well. I think he understands ball movement, knows when to make the extra pass."

He also understands that defense isn't optional in Thibodeau's system.

To that end, he's more than living up to the organization's standard. Opposing 3s are managing a paltry 9.4 player efficiency rating against him this season, while shooting guards are posting just a 13.6 PER against him, via 82games.

"He’s on this team for a reason. He’s a tough SOB," Butler said, via Aschburner. "Mike’s been big for this team. Helluva player, helluva shooter, helluva scorer."

 

Staying Alive

Dunleavy isn't the only reason the Bulls, 24-11 since Jan. 2, are thriving in the face of adversity.

He's one of a number of bodies responsible for helping them withstand the loss of the franchise's centerpiece.

This strength-in-numbers approach is the real key behind Chicago's success. That's why the Bulls haven't yet ditched Thibodeau's manual even when the season script has been balled up, pitched and recycled for a while.

That's why they're still sending streams of optimism breezing through the Windy City skies—and giving migraines to the rest of the basketball world.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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