In Memphis, Tony Allen is known simply as the Grindfather. Kevin Durant and others call him the NBA’s toughest one-on-one defender.
Give him an opponent, watch him go to work studying tape for angles to attack, tendencies to expose. Then Allen clamps down, getting as close as physically possible and taking that man out of his game.
Offensively, a dunk may be the only shot Allen takes that fans don’t hold their breath, worried he’ll miss. His jumper doesn’t seem to fit with the smooth strokes of Golden State’s Splash Brothers or even the soft shooting touch of his own teammates, big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. But Allen’s attention to defense makes him one of the most important players for the defensive-minded Grizzlies.
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”He’s unique,” Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said. ”Not many people make their name defensively and can affect the game the way he does. He’s definitely one of those guys. I don’t think people give him enough respect and attention for what he does for our team.”
Allen helped Boston win the 2008 title with his defense on Kobe Bryant. Durant has seen way too much of Allen in three postseason series in the previous four years, naming Allen last month when asked about the toughest defender.
Now the 11-year veteran is defending Golden State and specifically annoying Klay Thompson in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Warriors got a taste of how harassing Allen can be when Memphis evened the series at 1-1 Tuesday night with a 97-90 win. When matched up directly against MVP Stephen Curry and Thompson, Allen held them to a combined 2-of-7 shooting (28.6 percent). He also had more steals (four) than the Splash Brothers had 3s (three combined).
”He’s smart, and he’s quick,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said of Allen. ”He knows what he’s doing. He knows angles, has quick hands. We’ve probably tried to dribble too much in his space, so the way to beat any good defense or any good defender is good screening, good cutting, the basics. Keep moving the ball.”
Thompson went 6 of 15 and only 1 of 6 outside the arc being guarded by Allen, a performance that had him facing questions Thursday of whether Allen has gotten into his head.
”They know what I think now?” Thompson said. ”That’s all I got to say. Come on, man.”
Playing defense for a living started when Eddie Sutton told Allen at Oklahoma State to quit thinking he was a scorer. Then Doc Rivers reinforced that by telling Allen defense was the guard’s niche when they were together in Boston. General manager Chris Wallace, who drafted Allen in Boston, lured Allen to Memphis for his defense.
”I just find it a hardhat job that a lot of guys don’t sign up for, and I signed up for it,” Allen said. ”I want to be the best at it.”
Allen finished fifth in the 2013 voting for Defensive Player of the Year, won by Gasol, and he was voted to the NBA’s All-Defensive team in 2012 and 2013 and was on the second team in 2011.
He campaigned for another spot again Tuesday night while wearing a microphone for television. He stripped Thompson on a fast break, flipping the ball to a teammate as he fell forward to the court. He also jumped a pass that Allen finished off with a big dunk, and he celebrated both steals by proclaiming himself ”First team, All Defense.”
Former teammate Tony Wroten wrote on Twitter he heard that from Allen daily in practice.
At times, Allen can appear a bit oblivious. Fans booed him when he walked through a youngsters’ dance group at Golden State during a timeout Sunday. He tends to wander off during timeouts and frequently can be found sitting on the scorer’s table.
Yet opponents are shooting a measly 24.1 percent from 3-point range against Allen this postseason. He’s averaging 2.7 steals after ranking third in the NBA in the regular season with 2.05 per game. He now has 12 steals over his past three games, and the Grizzlies will be back at home Saturday night for Game 3, where he’s even better.
”It’s what I’m paid to do, honestly,” Allen said.
AP Basketball Writer Antonio Gonzalez in Oakland, California, and freelance writer Clay Bailey in Memphis, Tennessee, contributed to this report.