CLEVELAND — The Bulls are going to need Pau Gasol if they’re going to topple LeBron James and his crew in this best-of-seven playoff series, which is tied 2-2 heading into Tuesday’s critical Game 5.
No doubt, the Bulls won’t reach the Eastern Conference finals without strong performances from stars Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Will Joakim Noah’s game come around at the offensive end? Chicago fans all want to know. And how will coach Tim Thibodeau deploy his up-and-down bench?
All that matters, but you know what else does? The ongoing contributions of oft-overlooked small forward Mike Dunleavy. Simply put, no member of this team has a greater disparity in his winning and losing performances this postseason.
In six victories so far against the Bucks and Cavaliers, Dunleavy has averaged 13.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists, all well above his season averages. But in four defeats, Dunleavy is chipping in just 5.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, and an even one assist — all below his regular-season marks of 9.4, 3.9 and 1.8.
The 34-year-old, in his 14th NBA season, arrived early at Quicken Loans Arena and got up several dozen shots by the time teammates arrived for Tuesday morning’s shootaround.
“I think I’ve got a lot of basketball left in me,” he said, “but I’m certainly closer to the end than to the beginning. I’m trying to make the most of every opportunity, realizing these things only happen so often.”
For Dunleavy, opportunities at real playoff success have been exceedingly rare. Game 5 against the Cavs will be his 25th career playoff game. This is the first time he has played on a team that advanced past the opening round.
His personal goal for Game 5: to start fast, as he did in the Bulls’ Game 1 victory here. After that, just continue to deliver more than meets the eye as a guy who can be sneaky-good … that is, when he isn’t fading too far into the background.
“I’ve never really worried about what others thought,” he said. “I’ve always just kept myself in great shape and taken care of my body so that — no matter what age I am — I feel like I can play, contribute and help. If the day comes when I can’t, I’ll check out. But I feel great right now and never thought 34 would be old.”
It isn’t. But it can look ancient when Dunleavy is shooting 1-for-7 in 33 minutes, as he did in the Bulls’ Game 4 loss.
“I always want to help more than that,” he said.
It’s always welcome.