Allen brings blue-collar attitude, non-stop energy
Tony Allen has a blue-collar attitude with a sometimes zany personality. His nonstop talk on the court and defense get under the skin of opposing coaches and players. His towel-twirling antics on the bench inspire the home crowd.
More than anything, Allen has changed the Memphis Grizzlies' approach heading into the playoffs for the first time in five years.
''Tony plays with a lot of emotion,'' forward Zach Randolph said of his teammate. ''Tony's been great all year. Tireless on defense. Our leader on the defensive end. Guys feed off his energy.''
The Grizzlies were looking to improve their defense and add to their bench when they signed the 6-foot-4 guard to a three-year contract last summer. He spent his first six seasons with Boston, who selected him with the 25th pick in the 2004 draft. His calling card is defense and hustle, first learned at Oklahoma State and honed out of necessity in Boston under coach Doc Rivers.
Allen said Rivers told him the Celtics paid Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnet millions to handle the scoring.
''`What you need to be doing is all the little things,''' Allen recalled. ''That's hustling, diving for loose balls, charges, deflections, fast transition breaks, pushing the ball, driving and kicking and getting steals. Doing the intangibles.''
Early in the season, Memphis coach Lionel Hollins seemed to struggle to find a spot for Allen. He came off the bench. Some nights he played extended minutes, other games he played less than 10 - if at all.
A season-ending shoulder injury to star forward Rudy Gay in February moved Allen into the starting lineup. Gay's loss could have devastated the Grizzlies' playoff hopes if not for Allen filling the void. Now, the Grizzlies open their playoff series Sunday at top-seeded San Antonio.
''I ain't trying to fulfill Rudy's shoes,'' Allen said. ''I'm not trying to be Rudy. They pay Rudy those X amount of dollars to do what he do, and I just do what I do.''
His defense is strong enough that the Grizzlies are campaigning for Allen's inclusion on the NBA All-Defensive team. He averages 4.35 steals per 48 minutes, about a steal ahead of New Orleans point guard Chris Paul in second.
Despite sitting out the final two games, Allen finished fifth in steals at 1.79 per game even though he averaged less than 21 minutes. He is scoring 13.7 points per game and grabbing 3.7 rebounds as a starter, up from 5.6 points and 2.0 rebounds off the bench. The Grizzlies are 18-7 when Allen plays 30 minutes.
''More than Tony's veteran experience is his winning experience,'' Hollins said. ''I think it's his ability to come out and guard and get everybody else to guard and play with energy. That's the most important.''
An impressive game from Allen leads to must-see TV if the guard is up for the postgame interview. He stares into space as if unaware of the question, calls out to people walking by and then answers. Sort of. A memorable response came after a game at Oklahoma City where Allen pestered Kevin Durant in helping the Grizzlies pull out the victory.
Asked about guys stepping up, Allen said, ''Yeah. It's just all heart. Grit. Grind,'' before he went on to credit Randolph with helping him guard Durant and saying Memphis knew it had to ''do a good job on the Ibakas of the world, the Hardens of the world, the Sefoloshas of the world to make it a tight game down the stretch.''
His grit-grind comment inspired a local sports talk radio host to turn the phrase into a T-shirt that he can't produce fast enough to meet demand.
Allen is as entertaining on the sideline as when on the court. He backslaps teammates running down the court, gyrates in reaction to a dunk, or tosses a towel after a good play. The Grizzlies put together a video montage of his antics, which they play often late in close games to excite the crowd.
''It's just being a teammate when you see me on the sideline cheering for my teammates,'' Allen said. ''I never thought that was crazy. I never thought that was bad at all. I love this game.''
Allen also keeps reminding teammates the goal isn't making the nightly highlights or padding stats. His message? It's about winning and making the playoffs.
''My role has expanded through energy,'' Allen said. ''I'm taking advantage of it. I'm on that gas right now, and I don't plan on letting up.''