WASHINGTON — Throughout this season, at points where matters looked most dire, Tom Thibodeau would cite the losses of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng and talk about the Bulls' fight.
Never has that trait been more impressively on display than Friday night at Verizon Center.
Not the rule-breaking kind of fight, the kind that sent Nene to the showers with 8 minutes, 28 seconds left after he head-butted Jimmy Butler and possibly threw a punch as they separated, which could draw further league action.
The Bulls flashed restraint during that incident and then resolve, digging deep for a gritty 100-97 victory on Butler's go-ahead 3-pointer with 24.2 seconds remaining.
Mike Dunleavy broke Scottie Pippen's franchise record for 3-pointers in a playoff game, hitting 8 of 10, and finished with a career-playoff-high 35 points. And the Bulls, despite blowing another seven-point, fourth-quarter lead, avoided falling into a 3-0 hole from which no NBA playoff team has recovered.
"I'm proud of this team," Joakim Noah said. "It was a hostile environment and a lot of guys stepped up."
None more so than Dunleavy — "He saved us," Butler said — and Butler, who finished with 15 points and showed no hesitation before hitting his go-ahead shot.
"Jo with two big handoffs, and just taking shots I know I can make," said Butler, who said he isn't mad at Nene and "respected" him. "I feel I was much more aggressive, and that's the way I have to be."
After Butler's shot, Trevor Ariza missed a 3-pointer. But Dunleavy threw away the inbounds pass after a timeout, and John Wall sank two free throws with 15.8 seconds left. Butler followed with two clutch free throws of his own.
Joakim Noah then fouled out with 5.5 seconds left on an intentional move to prevent the Wizards from trying a tying 3-pointer. Bradley Beal split two free throws.
"With our strategy, in certain situations, we like to do it," Thibodeau said of the intentional foul. "On the catch, if the player's back is to the basket, we want to foul. We just didn't want to give up the 3."
The Wizards fouled D.J. Augustin before the inbounds, giving the Bulls that free throw, which he made, and possession. Augustin sank two more with 4.7 seconds left to ice the game despite an ill-advised foul by Tony Snell with Wall 60 feet from the basket.
Butler also sank a 3-pointer directly after Nene got ejected, the best answer for the tactics the Wizards employed. He avoided engaging in the altercation other than staring down Nene with their heads together.
"It looked like an MMA move to me," Dunleavy said. "It was great that Jimmy kept his cool. A lot of people in that situation would have started throwing blows."
Added Noah: "It was a turning point. Nene is a big part of what they do. Him not being on the court was big for us."
Wizards center Marcin Gortat appeared to leave the bench area, grounds for an automatic suspension. But Wizards coach Randy Wittman said the Bulls had called timeout.
Dunleavy scored 10 of the Bulls' first 14 points before they hit their typical lull, going scoreless for 6:48 and without a field goal for 7:57.
A humorous exchange played out when Gibson said he "looked forward to seeing a lot of different guys in the lineup late in the fourth" at the morning shootaround. Before tipoff, Thibodeau said he "had no idea what (Gibson) was talking about."
But Thibodeau did alter his fourth-quarter rotation, playing Dunleavy and making multiple offense-defense substitutions.
"We felt like in both (the first two) games, we had the lead in the fourth and we wanted to finish strong," Thibodeau said. "They're a tough team. That's the first one. We have to keep grinding."