Bullish: Game 2 ECFR Reflections

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

At the outset of this NBA season, I wanted two things from the Bulls: a regime change and a clear vision of the future. As the season wore on, it became apparent that nothing short of a Brooklyn-like performance was going to change the front office lineup, but I held out hope for a clear vision of the future. It looks like it’s taken until the first round of the playoffs, but some clarity is now available.

In their 111-97 Game 2 win over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference First Round series, the Bulls expanded on the strengths they displayed in their surprising Game One win.

Here are some likes and dislikes

The starters dominated. Can there be any denial that this is a bad matchup for Boston. The Bulls starters initiated substantial runs in each of the first three quarters, 24-6 in the first, 17-5 in the second, and 19-6 in the third. In the fourth quarter, a lineup of Felicio, Zipser, Rondo, Butler and Wade triggered a 10-0 run that made the score 105-86 with 5:17 to go and likely set the Boston fans toward the exits.

Again, coach Fred Hoiberg rode the hot hand off the bench. In Game 1, Bobby Portis fulfilled some of his substantial promise with a remarkably efficient 19 point 9 rebound game. In Game 2, it was forward Paul Zipser who earned a moment at the podium with a 16 point game on 6-8 shooting and two for three from behind the arc. He got 29 minutes of burn while Portis and Jerian Grant, another key game one contributor sat.

The Bulls have become a pretty good three point shooting team. After opening the series 0-11, the Bulls have shot a sizzling 18-39 from deep. When Boston looked to narrow the gap on the boards, the Bulls took advantage with stellar shooting from deep. No one will confuse this team for the Houston Rockets anytime soon, but they have learned to love the three ball, and it has nearing the cusp of an extraordinary upset.

Dislike

Michael Carter Williams should only see the floor at garbage time. Looking for an improvement on Grant’s poor play in Game 2, Hoiberg looked way down the bench for MCW and the former Rookie of the Year showed why he’s en route to be a Jeopardy answer soon with a coupla heaves and inconsistent defense. The team has a playoff rotation and needs to stick with it.

But yeah, that’s it. This, more than Game 1, was the one that the Bulls “stole.” The Bulls shot 51% from the field against a team whose primary defensive attribute is limiting opponents field goal percentage. That isn’t likely to repeat, but the Bulls have played intelligent, poised basketball to get halfway toward an upset that will reverberate through the NBA season.

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Bullish 04.18.17: Deep

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

If, by a bizarre twist of fate, your life depended on choosing the winning side of a three point shooting contest, it’s unlikely that you would ever choose three players from the current Chicago Bulls team over their counterparts for the Golden State Warriors. In fact, even if you were an avid Bulls fan, you probably wouldn’t consider it. Yet, there is a universe where the Bulls shot better from deep, and it isn’t a parallel one. After the all star break, the Bulls were a better team shooting from behind the arc.

After the beak, the Warriors shot 37.3% per game from distance; the Bulls averaged 38.2.

The point isn’t that the D-Wade, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic et al. are better than Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant et al, but rather that a conversation can credibly exist on this point. For the first two thirds of the season, the Bulls were an abomination of a three point shooting team. Through 57 games, the team was suffering the rare trifecta of being last in the NBA in three point attempts, makes and of course percentage. After the break, they were sixth. The change occurred despite a trade that dealt away their best long range shooter, Doug McDermott too!

The Bulls improvement can be tied to that trade, though as it also sent away starting power forward Taj Gibson. His minutes were taken by Mirotic and Bobby Portis, both of whom are enthusiastic three point shooters. Also Wade suffered an elbow injury that sidelined him for most of March and April; he was replaced for the most part by Paul Zipser, a rookie who also shot often from deep. Lastly, Bulls point guards, Grant and Rajon Rondo (!) shot well from behind the arc. And to paraphrase Senator Dirksen, a little downtown here and a little downtown there and sooner or later you have a real threat from deep.

That the Bulls improvement in 3 point shooting was almost entirely coincidental, makes it a sort of stealth weapon. Overall the Bulls ranked 24th in the NBA in long distance shooting percentage, which would seem that it’s a defensive category that would take care of itself. Yet in the Chicagoans game one win against Boston, the Bulls shooting from deep paralleled their season. They missed their first 11 shots from behind the arc and went into halftime shooting 2 of 14 from three point range. Yet, in the second half they made six of their 11 attempts as they took control of the game. Eight of 25 doesn’t feel prepossessing, which is why the Bulls long distance shooting may be their secret weapon approaching game two. That’s something that the Warriors could never say.

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Bullish 04.17.17: On Game 1 of the First Round

Bulls 106

Celtics 102

With apologies to Zach Lowe, here are some things I liked and didn’t like.

Likes

The Bulls gameplan represented an intelligent and thorough understanding of their strengths and the Celtics weaknesses. In a word, it’s rebounding. The Bulls ranked 4th and 12th in Offensive and Defensive Rebound percentage; the Celtics ranked 27th and 25th. Thus the Bulls aimed to bully the Bostonians in the paint and they did. They outrebounded the Celtics 53 to 36 and 20 to 12 on the offensive glass. That’s a lot of extra possessions.

The Butler-athon in the fourth quarter wasn’t the usual hero ball. The fourth quarter turned into the Jimmy Butler show but it wasn’t the usual give Jimmy Buckets the ball and get out of the way. They ran plays, lots of plays, no really LOTS of plays. JB got the ball coming off screens at the elbow, screens along the baseline, pin downs along the arc, and so on. The Celtics are an extremely well prepared team, yet they often had no idea where the screens were coming from.

When Bobby Portis demonstrated that he had the hot hand and Niko Mirotic demonstrated that he didn’t, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg stayed with Portis. This was coach Fred Hoiberg’s first playoff game as a coach. In the postseason, the long term ceases to be measured in years or months or even weeks from now, it becomes it measured in minutes, and Hoiberg demonstrated some understanding of that by staying with Portis at the power forward, and the second year player rewarded the confidence of his coach by having his best game as a pro. He produced 19 points (on eight of ten shooting), nine boards, three assists and two blocked shots and a plus 12. Who knows maybe on Tuesday he’ll go back to getting lost on screens defensively and heaving contested bricks, but tonight he was the right choice and Hoiberg made the right call nailing Niko’s butt to the bench in the fourth quarter

The Bulls went with a playoff rotation. For the entirety of the 82 game rotation, Hoiberg used players as if he was trying to figure out what he had. Most coaches do that for a few weeks even two months, so it was more than a little discouraging that 60 games into the season the Bulls rotation was unsettled, literally changing from night to night. Yet in Game 1, the Bulls played nine guys, Butler, Wade, Rondo, Lopez, Portis, Mirotic, Grant, Zipser and Felico. Even in the fourth quarter of a playoff game on the road, there was substantial continuity.

Dislikes

The number of possessions where Rondo was tasked with guard the Celtics star Isaiah Thomas. Rondo can’t guard anyone that quick anymore, and the defensive gameplan should have accounted for this.

The disorganization in late game out of bounds plays. Every team should have about a half dozen out of bounds plays designed to get the ball in the hands of a good free throw shooter so that protecting a lead is easier. The Bulls, even with a timeout to burn failed at this late in the fourth quarter and the final score was closer than it needed to be.

But that’s about it. The Bulls demonstrated that this isn’t your usual one seed versus eight seed playoff series with the win. Only twelve wins separate the two teams by record, and even less than that if you consider point differential. Yes, the Celtics could still win this series in five games, they are demonstrably better than the Bulls. But in their game one win, the Bulls showed some savvy and smarts that have been absent far too often in the regular season.

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Music: Kevin Eubanks at Birdland

Thursday night, just after two friends joined me at a table near the stage at Birdland, one of them asked me “are you reviewing?”  It was an earnest inquiry even if it hit a sore spot.  Concert reviews are no longer part of newspaper journalism I told him, doing my best to mask the muted bitterness that comes from spending decades honing a skill that suddenly has no market value.

Before we delved too deeply into that subject, the music started.  The sounds were by the Kevin Eubanks Group, a quartet featuring the former Tonight Show Music Director on a tiny guitar (it looked like a toy but sounded like a monster) joined by three fellow all stars, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and trumpeter Nicholas Payton.  The gig was in support of their new recording, “East West Time Line” (Mack Avenue), but what attracted me was that the last time I’d heard Eubanks and Holland, at the Village Vanguard last winter, they were magical.  Birdland is bigger and more formal, more midtown.  I was curious to see if their magic was portable.

The set began with the band gracefully weaving textures into riffs and playing off of them.  After arriving at a figure that sounded Monkish, they began to dig into grooves with solos and duos and trios emerging organically from the fabric of the music.  At times the rapport was so high and intuitive that it seemed like a jam by musicians who had been playing together for years even though there were music stands, sheets and Holland told me afterward that he was new to playing with Tain and Payton.  A slight narrative formed.  Payton’s solos seemed rooted in hard bop while Eubanks;s approach was rooted in country blues and West African styles.  Bit by bit as the set progressed the two seemed to be moving toward some sort of common ground.  The solos sizzled as if each musician was eager to top what had previously been played without breaking from the intense mood and deep grooves of the music.  When Holland took one of the last solos of the 90 minute set, the club was rapt.  Not even the sound of ice clinking in a glass was heard.

Upon the completion, Eubanks needed a minute before addressing the crowd.  It was as if he was returning from a very deep place.  The audience was making a similar journey.

My friend looked at me with wonder and asked “is this what you get to hear all the time?”  I assured him that these guys are special, and I realized that the muted bitterness felt long gone.

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Bullish 04.16.17: Rondo

Bullish 04.09.17:  The Rondo Effect

Last summer, the Bull’s signing of point guard Rajon Rondo stuck out as the dumbest personnel move in an offseason fraught with a dozen of them.  Rondo had worn out his welcome on three different teams, the Boston Celtics, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Sacramento Kings, in a mere two seasons.  He lacked the ability to shoot, couldn’t play defense after a knee injury wiped out his lateral mobility, and most of the time his teams were better with him off the floor instead of on.  Yet in the first few days of the offseason, the Bulls not only signed Rondo, but announced he was their primary free agent target.  

This pronouncement rightfully sent the Bulls faithful into a maelstrom of despair.  Rondo was the sort of player that was the opposite of what coach Fred Hoiberg’s offensive system demanded.  Hoiberg had been hired a year earlier precisely to bolster the club’s offense.  If the front office and the coach they hired weren’t on the same page, what reason was there for hope? Vegas put the over/under for Bulls wins in the2016-17 season at 38 and most pundits—myself included—took the under.   And most cited the conflict between the presumed offensive system and personnel (which by season’s start included Dwyane Wade, another misfit for a pace and space styled offense) as the main reason. 

Yet the Bulls start their postseason today after an up and down 41-41 season and Rondo has been a particular surprise. He was the Rondo of his reputation for the first half of the season. He was suspended for a game for throwing a towel at an assistant coach. His defense was atrocious and despite nearly seven assists a game, he wasn’t contributing much else. In December, just to cite a random month, he shot 35.8% from the field.

Then after getting five straight DNP-CD (Did Not Play, Coaches Decision) in January, a change happened. Rondo became a different player. Initially reports began to surface that he was using his off days to visit the Bulls D League team and give them pointers after games. But a bigger change was on the court. No, he was still a putrid defender, but but…he learned how to shoot. After the all star break, he shot 47.3% from the field and amazingly 46/3% from behind the arc. It was no fluke, his free throw shooting improved from a career mark of 60.6% a mark so low that he was a target for intentional fouling when the Bulls were in close games, to a respectable 70.1%

The improvement was essential as the Bulls are built around players like Wade, Jimmy Butler, Robin Lopez and others who have no long distance shooting prowess. Without someone to space the floor, defenses were packing the paint and collapsing the Bulls offense. Rondo and his replacement in the starting lineup Jerian Grant were two factors in opening up the floor; power forward Nikola Mirotic, who scored 14.2 points per game and shot 41.3% from the field after the break was another. Suddenly the Bulls who were dead last in attempts, and percentage from distance in the first half of the season, were averaging 10 three pointers a game and shooting 38.2% from behind the arc. To put that number in perspective, over the course of the season only three teams, the San Antonio Spurs, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors bettered that mark. In other words, a player who was thought to be taking the Bulls from being a contemporary NBA team helped them find their way.

So do the Bulls stand a chance in the playoffs? The Bulls are the eighth seed and face the number one seed Boston Celtics. Usually one versus eight series are walkovers, but this one has intrigue. With only 53 wins, the Celtics are not as potent as a usual one seed. For another, the Celtics have not been their usual stalwart selves on defense.

The Bulls do stand a better chance than most eighth seeds, and if they were coached by a leading light like Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, I’d bet on them, but Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was still searching for a rotation 78 games into the season. The Bulls have stumbled onto a style of play and have the players to make big news, but I think they lack the coaching acumen and going forward they probably lack the front office smarts to build on this team. So in the end, this team reminds me of the ’76-’77 squad which played great basketball down the stretch only to have to face the Bill Walton/Maurice Lucas Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. They came closer than any other team to eliminating the Blazers but lost. The Celtics are that good but I imagine the Bulls going down in an interesting fight.

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At WSJ on the new Linda May Han Oh Recording: Walk Against Wind

‘Walk Against Wind’ by Linda May Han Oh Review

The bassist and composer’s third recording in a predominantly quartet setting helps focus attention on the evolution of her writing and improvising.

Linda May Han Oh’s new album is ‘Walk Against Wind’

Linda May Han Oh’s new album is ‘Walk Against Wind’ PHOTO: SHERVIN LAINEZ

Linda May Han Oh’s new album is ‘Walk Against Wind’ PHOTO: SHERVIN LAINEZ

The bassist and composer Linda May Han Oh makes music that is resolutely of the moment, yet she is defying one of the major trends in jazz today. Unlike her peers who often use their first few recordings to showcase a variety of different bands, Ms. Oh, who is 32 years old, is about to release her fourth recording, “Walk Against Wind” (Biophilia), and it’s her third in a predominantly quartet setting. The similarity in ensembles from one recording to the next focuses the attention on the evolution of her composing and improvising, and it’s a smart strategy. Her innovative range and stellar improvisations have made Ms. Oh one of the most dynamic rising stars in jazz today.

“Walk Against Wind” features 11 originals that are lithe, spry and often episodic. The recording opens with a subdued bass intro by Ms. Oh and a ruminative solo that gives way to a darker, scratchier guitar solo by Matthew Stevens. The piece slows to a crawl before saxophonist Ben Wendel gently nudges the music toward a brighter finish. On other pieces, driving fury yields to softer introspection. Ms. Oh’s bass playing moves effortlessly from timekeeping functions to expanding the range of each tune with provocative solos. Mr. Stevens’s ringing chords and Mr. Wendel’s darting horn provide superb contrast to Ms. Oh’s deep oaken tones. The band will tour in April, performing in Cambridge, Mass., on the 5th, at the Jazz Standard in New York on the 19th, and at venues in Baltimore and Old Lyme, Conn., as well.

Ms. Oh was born in Malaysia to parents of Chinese descent. Originally named May Han Oh, she grew up in Perth, Australia, and to aid in her assimilation her father gave her the name Linda; on her first three recordings she is

billed simply as Linda Oh. She studied bassoon, played electric bass in rock bands, and listened to a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers recordings. She turned her attention to jazz and won fame in Australia, then moved to New York in 2004 to study at the Manhattan School of Music. She rose quickly through the ranks of the Gotham jazz scene and currently plays in bands led by guitarist Pat Metheny and by trumpeter Dave Douglas and in Sound Prints, a band co-led by Mr. Douglas and saxophonist Joe Lovano.

Her debut as a leader, “Entry,” a self-released 2009 recording, displayed impressive potential, but her second release, “Initial Here” (Greenleaf, 2012), marked her as a major talent. On it she covered the Duke Ellington classic “Come Sunday” with dazzling panache and offered a unique merger of Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming” with Igor Stravinsky’s “Les Cinq Doigts.” Her third recording, “Sun Pictures” (Greenleaf, 2013), showcased her innovations on a program of originals. Ms. Oh has other projects. Her large ensemble with a string quartet had its debut at Jazz Gallery this winter. “Walk Against Wind” is an accomplished recording, but all signs suggest Ms. Oh is just getting started.

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The Do Over 07: Young Friends

Is 56 the new 26?  It seems that way for me as my current professional and existential quandaries mirror the ones I faced 30 years ago.  These posts are a series of ponderings trying parse the difference between now and then.

A coupla weeks ago, my friend Jonah posted an interesting article about middle age, which amused me because I don’t consider him middle aged.  But then again, middle age is a fluid concept.  I’ve known people in the late 20s who considered themselves middle age.  It wasn’t silly either.  They no longer thought of themselves as “young” but weren’t quite ready to think deeply about retirement; therefore that was middle age to them even though I thought they were still quite young.  Anyway, the article argued that the biggest threat to middle aged men isn’t smoking or obesity, it’s loneliness.  I thought about it for a long while especially since a. I do consider myself middle aged and so does most everyone else and I don’t smoke.  Obesity, maybe, but I’m working diligently on that.  Loneliness was something I ponder as my leisure time is ever more dominated by solitary activities like listening to podcasts.

In posting the article Jonah offered his solution, plan get-togethers with your old pals.  That certainly resonated for me since some friends just did an informal version of that recently (unfortunately, I couldn’t attend due to work and financial considerations).  But I have a better idea:  make friends with young people. I love getting together with people my age and people older than me too, but inevitably, nostalgia takes over.  I like nostalgia too.  I’m a Chicago Bulls fan and well, this year’s team has been frustrating to the point that I’ve watched about a half hour’s worth of You Tube clips of the dynasty era teams just to remind myself that those guys in black and red really can play championship caliber ball sometimes.  Yet, I don’t want to dwell on the past.  I know it’s not 1997 anymore or even 1987, even if the music at the store seems a tad too anxious to celebrate the ‘80s (our musical furniture is the Sirius XM Big 80s station).  I’m far more interested in figuring out what 2017 means and my biggest allies in that quest are young people. They know it’s not 1987 because they have no tangible memory of that year, which is actually helpful; they don’t miss it.  Furthermore since they don’t have kids or grandkids or engrossing jobs, they are freer to hang out and parse life in New York City today.

There are several other bonding points.  They are struggling to establish themselves and fight off the negative stereotype of “millennials.”  I’m struggling to re-establish myself and battling the stereotype of “old,” i.e., being frail, intransigent and tech/social media illiterate.  For them, the Obama presidency spanned their collegiate and coming of age years, so they have a profound WTF about the current administration.

Thanks to the easy access of streaming most of them who are excited about music have interests that pre-date their years on the planet.  One evening about seven years ago, I and a bunch of people in their 20s were closing the Bedford Cheese Shop after a very busy day and one of my coworkers put on a playlist of songs with food in the title.  Just after we locked the doors, “Yes, We have no Bananas” came on and everyone except me croaked along.  I wasn’t exhibiting tasteful restraint; I simply don’t know the lyrics. Yet, I was fascinated to hear the routes that my coworkers came to the song, which included The Archies, Luxury Liner, The Simpsons, The Muppet Show and several other diverse sources.  And I enjoyed hearing the other music that they arrived at.  The guy with the playlist went on a Herbie Nichols kick shortly after and the cheese shop soundtrack was often the music of the great overlooked jazzman, and yes, a few months later the inevitable happened.  One of my other coworkers told me he heard a pianist that reminded him of Nichols, some cat named Thelonious Monk.  Did I have some recommendations?

Anyway, my openness may be a genetic trait.  Both of my parents were enthusiastic about hanging out with their younger coworkers as well as my older sibling’s friends.  They wanted to hear new perspectives in much the same way that I’m eager to hear the routes that lead people several decades my junior to the same interests I have.

I put this theorizing to the acid test this week.  I took my friend Dylan, who is 24, to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s nightclub to hear Trio M, a superb collective featuring pianist Myra Melford, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson.  I’ve known Dylan for all of his life.  His Dad and I go all the way back to freshman year of college 39 years ago.  Also, when his Dad is in town, he’s a frequent companion of mine in my concert going.  The adult version of Dylan and I bonded over beer, first at a bar that had Grimm Lambo Door on draft, then when he came by the shop to by a growler of it.  He asked about the music on my upcoming agenda and I mentioned Melford and sent him a You Tube clip of her with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  He was astounded, so off we went.  Afterward, over an Equilibrium double IPA and brined chicken tacos, we talked about it and I was pleased.   He’s a music fan, not a jazz fan.  He was delighted by Melford’s play, enthused by Wilson and blown away by Dresser.  He also liked that equanimity of the ensemble.  I pointed out the roots of piano trios and mentioned a couple of other stellar ones.  He seemed to be taking notes. The music was at times inside and at times out.  What I particularly liked in his assessment was that he didn’t engage in Vietnam War era parsings of that dichotomy.  It made perfect sense to him that jazz in 2017 would incorporate the entire century of its history.

After we parted, I wandered over to NuBlu where David Weiss and Point of Departure recalled the vivid experimentalism of jazz in the late ‘60s without repeating it.  I attended alone but thought of several young pals who would have dug it.

Somi-Petite-Afrique

The current listening. More on it in an upcoming post.

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