Commentary

Tony Allen's 'grit, grind' spark Grizzlies

Updated: May 8, 2011, 7:37 AM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Tony Allen sat at his locker, deflecting all the credit to his teammates and his coaching staff and anyone else he could think of.

But this game was all Allen and provided a microcosm of the Grizzlies' season -- an improbable renaissance fueled by Allen's relentless defensive energy and his teammates' relentless physicality and toughness.

That may not be apparent from the box score, since he had only 10 points and shot 6-of-10 from the line. But Memphis' improbable rally from 16 points down to beat Oklahoma City in Game 3 in overtime, 101-93, was about the best proof on record that Allen is the league's best perimeter defender -- if not its best defender, period.

"We had no shot," said Shane Battier, but somehow the Grizzlies rallied anyway. Upstart, eighth-seeded Memphis now leads the best-of-seven two games to one, with Game 4 Monday night in Memphis.

The catalyst was a suffocating defensive effort that permitted the Thunder just nine points in a 12:30 span of the fourth quarter and overtime. Allen single-covered the league's leading scorer, Kevin Durant, for that entire stretch, and all he did was completely and totally erase the game's leading scorer from the game.

When Allen returned to the game with 7:45 left in the fourth quarter, Durant had 22 points and the Thunder had an 11-point lead.

[+] EnlargeTony Allen
Jim Brown/US PresswireTony Allen went all-out in defending the NBA's leading scorer.

And 12:45 later, Durant still had 22 points.

In the most important stretch of the Grizzlies' season, Allen took over the game with his defensive energy. Memphis wasn't exactly lighting up the scoreboard itself, in part because Allen kept bricking his free throws, but his suffocating defense was so overpowering that it didn't matter.

It was difficult for Durant just to catch the ball, let alone do anything productive with it. Allen forced two turnovers on pass attempts to Durant and thwarted several other plays with his off-ball denial. Fittingly, one of those came at the end of overtime when Allen read a pass attempt by Russell Westbrook to Durant and forced Westbrook into an illegal screen violation. Westbrook bumped Allen into the scorer's table, upon which he promptly lied across like Superman and joyfully wagged his tongue out at the assembled media.

When Durant did get a catch, Allen was up in his mug -- careful not to fall for his "rip" move and an easy trip to the line, but aggressive enough to push Durant into difficult fadeaways.

His stat-line against Allen in crunch time: 0-for-7. No free throws. No assists until a meaningless 3 by James Harden with 15 seconds left in overtime.

That's ZERO, if you're scoring at home. Nothing. Nada.

The league's top scoring threat was totally eliminated from the game.

"He's an animal," said Zach Randolph.

"Tony Allen does a great job," said Durant. "If I might beat him, I see another guy stepping up, and they just played great team defense and got great stops."

And with Durant denied, the Thunder's offense shriveled. Oklahoma City scored only eight points a span of 12:30 until the 3-pointer by Harden against token defense; by that point, the Grizzlies had staked a double-digit lead of their own and the FedEx Forum was rocking.

"Grit and grind, that's all that was, grit and grind," said Allen, in what's become his catchphrase; locally, it's been enough of a cult phenomenon that it's emblazoned on a popular local T-shirt.

"It was team defense. You have to credit Coach [Dave] Joerger, Coach [Henry] Bibby and the coaching staff because they're in charge of the defense and they called out their plays. All we have to do is just look to the side, and they'll let you know if the guy is coming at you or if you're going to get back-screened, or flared, or down-screened, whatever the case may be."

Of course, it wasn't all Allen. There were other key developments that helped fuel the comeback.

For starters, Memphis coach Lionel Hollins made several adjustments, and nearly all of them proved fruitful. Starting O.J. Mayo in the second half was probably the biggest; he provided some desperately needed floor spacing against a collapsing Thunder defense after the Grizzlies left the first half with no 3-pointers and just one attempt.

Hollins also put Mayo on Westbrook in crunch time, a maneuver made easier when the Thunder used Thabo Sefolosha over Harden for several minutes in the fourth quarter. That allowed the Grizzlies to put the smaller Mike Conley on the non-threatening Sefolosha; while Harden played all of overtime, Oklahoma City didn't attack that matchup.

Mayo is the same size as Westbrook and took away the physical advantage he had over Conley; he was lethal in the first three quarters but was 1-for-7 with five turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime. Mayo also scored 18 points and finished a +23 on the night; the Grizzlies have to seriously consider starting him in Game 4.

"He was the player of the game, he gets the game ball," said Randolph, who was no slouch himself with 21 points and 21 rebounds. "O.J. did a great job on Westbrook. He's big for this team, man."

Hollins also found a productive way to make use of Iranian giant Hamed Haddadi, spotting him first-quarter minutes when the Thunder had a big lineup that wouldn't threaten his limited mobility.

When it comes down to it, though, the Grizzlies owe this one to the infectious defense of Allen ... much as their sudden ascent to the Western Conference's elite can be traced heavily to Allen's arrival.

"He took us to another level," said Mayo. "We've always had talented offensive players but in the past we lacked a little on defense. He's brought a lot of tenacity and intensity to the team and we've fed off that."

As a result, it was yet one more improbable result in an unbelievable season in Memphis. All grit and grind, indeed.