“Let’s see what Richard Hamilton did. Oh, 2-for-7. Ok. Marco Belinelli, 3-for-9. Ok.” Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen reads loudly in the locker room (to no one in particular, but for everyone to hear) while musing the final box score after an 85-82 overtime win against the Bulls, not concerned in the least with his own scoring, only his opponents.
He continues later. “Let me show you what I do. Mike Conley, Tony Allen,” demonstrating his routine reading over the game’s stat sheet, “Kirk Hinrich, Richard Hamilton. I just see what he [Hamilton] did. Then I look at what he [Belinelli] did. Then I see how many rebounds I had [six] – boom. Then I see how many steals I had [zero] – boom.”
He takes pride in this, making life miserable by harassing opponents. “I stuck Paul Pierce for six years in practice. He got me ready,” he said. Now one of the guys he tags in practice is Grizzlies backup Josh Selby. “It’s a great experience going against one of the best players in the league,” said Selby. “He talks a lot. He’ll get a steal or something or I’ll miss a shot and he’ll try to get in my head.”
So on this night, his prey were Hamilton and Belinelli. One day after Hamilton led the Bulls with 20 points on 7-for-15 shooting from the field (5-for-6 from the free throw line), Allen stayed literally attached to him for the entire evening, only breaking contact to elude screens or help. Hamilton, a 14-year veteran and one of the best at moving without the ball in league history, finished with five points and got to the free throw line just once.
Belinelli didn’t fare any better. The night before, he was hit 3-for-7 against Boston, including the game-winning shot. Against Allen, he finishes with just eight points, two assists and two turnovers.
Allen had nine points and two assists – roughly his season averages – but that doesn’t really matter. The Grizzlies are 26-13 and one of the toughest, nastiest teams to run up against, largely – if not entirely – because of their defense and rebounding, and Allen is a major reason for their success in the former. They rank among the league’s top ten in nearly every major defensive category: opponents’ points per game, field goal percentage, assists per game and turnovers per game. Allen is among the league’s best in one of the more obscure stats of efficiency, averaging 1.54 steals per turnover.
“I know this team won’t get far by me averaging 30 points in this jersey, so I try to do glue guy things. That’s what’s helped us get this notoriety so far, so I want to stick with that,” said Allen. “You gotta credit our video editing guy, he does a great job of getting those guys’ favorite moves, what they do in their offense. [Grizzlies assistant video coordinators] Jason March and my good buddy Steve, and also my strength and conditioning guy, Kelly Lambert. They keep me in shape, keep me on that treadmill and just keep me working. I just gotta be ready at all times.”
NBA general managers voted Allen, now in his ninth year, as the league’s best perimeter defender at the beginning of last season; he was NBA All-Defensive 2nd team in 2011 and 1st team in 2012. Standing 6-foot-4, he hawks everyone from 6-foot point guards like Chris Paul to 7-foot small forwards like Kevin Durant. In two games this season with Allen harassing him, Monta Ellis, is a combined 6-for-32. O.J. Mayo was held to 3-for-11 shooting when the two met in December. Tyreke Evans was 3-for-10 with four turnovers when Allen checked him earlier this month.
Defense is primarily about heart and effort, and Allen plays all-out every night; it’s also about natural ability, and Allen is blessed with long arms, and great anticipation and athleticism. As much as anything, Tony Allen is a product of his past, playing in the Chicago Public League in high school, at Oklahoma State University in college and with the Boston Celtics for his first six years in the league, where he truly embraced his niche.
“You look at [Chicago] guys like Cedric Banks, Imari Sawyer, all those guards who could fill it up – Will Bynum – defending those guys in the pro-am pretty much helped me along the way. Plus we played a lot of pickup basketball on the weekends. Guys like Martell Bailey, David Bailey, Sean Dockery, I grew up with those guys and not wanting to be the one to get embarrassed at the end of the hoop session, I think that helped me. You gotta credit [former Oklahoma St. head coach] Eddie Sutton, as well. He showed me the technique: how to deny, not get beat backdoor, fight through screens, things of that nature.”
He continues: “I played behind the Hall of Fame Paul Pierce. He’s the second-leading scorer in Celtics history. I defended him for six straight years, so I’ve pretty much seen just about everything. Plus defending Kobe Bryant in the Finals, that [helped] me decide that if I want to last long in this NBA, I need that to be my niche. So when I got signed to the Grizzlies, I said, ‘you know what, I’m gonna bring that defensive intensity to the Grizzlies,’ and I ain’t looked back since.”