It's not very often that a player who attempts only four shots swings the outcome of a playoff game, but that is exactly what Tony Allen did for the Memphis Grizzlies Monday night. Allen tallied eight points, eight rebounds, three assists and four steals in his 35 minutes of play, and his strong defense on both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was key in limiting the pair to a combined 23-of-56 (41.1 percent) from the field.
While Allen's defense deserves, and will receive, most of the attention, it's important to note that his Game 2 contributions were not limited to that end of the floor. Allen got himself out in transition for two quick buckets soon after checking into the game in the first quarter, the latter basket being one of those classic Tony Allen adventures where a Griz fan might have found himself screaming, "No! No! No! YES!"
He took advantage of lapses in Oklahoma City's half-court defense by making smart cuts to the basket at opportune times. Late in the third quarter with Memphis up one point, Allen victimized the Thunder with a baseline cut behind a Mike Conley-Marc Gasol high screen-and-roll.
Durant, knowing the non-threat Allen is as a jump-shooter, simply abandons him in the corner as Conley moves right to left across the floor after receiving a screen from Gasol. With Kendrick Perkins hedging hard and doubling Conley as he comes around the screen, the responsibility of making sure Gasol doesn't get a wide-open look falls on Durant, who crashes into the lane from the weak-side corner.
Many defenses are willing to make this rotation because the pass to the opposite corner is both a difficult one and one that takes a long time to reach its mark, giving the defense ample opportunity to scamper back over and contest a shot. But Allen smartly uses this principle and crushes it by sneaking in behind the play for a layup.
With the game tied late in overtime, Allen made a similar, but even more heady play.
Watch again as everything that happened in the Conley-Gasol pick-and-roll above happens again here on a high screen-and-roll with Conley and Zach Randolph. Conley comes around the screen and is followed by both his man and the big patrolling the screen, this time Serge Ibaka.
Because Ibaka abandons his man to double-team the ball, Allen's man, Russell Westbrook, slides down into the lane to bump the roll man and deny an easy entry pass, leaving Allen all alone in the corner. This time, rather than cutting along the baseline, Allen flashes into the middle of the paint, where he receives the pass from Conley.
By the time Ibaka has scampered back to his man underneath the rim, both he and Westbrook are threatened enough by Allen's presence near the basket that they buy his shot fake, and Allen is able to slide the ball to Randolph for a layup and a two-point Memphis lead.
Allen's best sequences of the game, though, were those when he was so active in his ball denial that the Thunder couldn't even get the ball to the man he was guarding. Take the sequence below, where Allen simply does not let the Thunder find a way to get the ball to Westbrook, who at the time was 7-of-13 from the field.
Allen easily navigates a pin-down screen for Westbrook from Caron Butler, then so aggressively jumps a handoff from Reggie Jackson to Westbrook that Jackson is forced to abandon the play and swing it back over to Durant on the opposite wing for an isolation. Then, knowing he's guarding a poor outside shooter, and that time is running down on the shot clock and Durant would have to put it up soon, Allen leaves Westbrook at the top of the key and gets his hand in Durant's face, forcing a miss.
Late in the fourth quarter, Allen similarly denied Durant the ball and forced a long attempt from Westbrook on the opposite side of the court.
Allen gets slightly more caught up in the pin-down action here, but he's attached enough to Durant's hip to deny the pass from Westbrook. When Russ picks up his dribble after a Durant screen and tries to enter it over the top, Allen is right there, denying that pass once again.
This all forces Westbrook to go to the opposite side with the basketball, and when Thabo Sefolosha screens for him on the wing, Memphis is able to switch Courtney Lee (who had success guarding Westbrook in Game 1) onto Westbrook and bait him into a long jumper. Durant didn't touch the ball the entire possession.
After Conley made one of two free throws on the other end, Westbrook came screaming down the court with the ball and was finally able to get it to KD with a dribble handoff. Perkins tried to get a piece of Allen with a screen (that was probably illegal but would never get called, thanks to tactics Perk learned from Kevin Garnett), but Allen negotiated his way around it and was in Durant's face enough to help him into a turnover.
Only a few of these plays actually showed up in the box score, but they were all important to helping Memphis steal home court away from the Thunder by tying the series up at one apiece.
Allen has long been considered an offensive liability in half-court situations, but if he keeps making smart cuts to the basket when his defender leaves him alone on the perimeter, he can remedy some of the concerns that arose after last year's Western Conference Finals—when the San Antonio Spurs often treated Allen and Tayshaun Prince like they simply didn't exist, content to let them shoot jumpers to their heart's content if that's what Memphis wanted out of a possession.
Allen's defense is still the primary reason he's on the floor, of course, and it's his main contribution to the Grizzlies' "grit n' grind" ethos. His maniacal hounding of passing lanes to deny the ball to both Westbrook and Durant at different times of Monday night's game was key in forcing the Thunder into suboptimal looks, and when he covered either of them in on-ball situations, he did an excellent job of pressuring them into contested jump shots.
Keeping up that level of energy and effort for the remainder of this series will be tough, and even if he does, it may not be enough to keep Westbrook and Durant in check. Those guys are All-Stars for a reason, after all. Allen, though, represents Memphis' best chance of corralling the Thunder's stars.