Among the most mythical creatures—right up there with unicorns, Minotaurs and Gorgons—there is thought to be the seldom-referenced Kevin Durant Stopper.
As it turns out, said creature may exist. He may call Memphis his home. He may be five or six inches shorter than Durant himself.
He may be Memphis Grizzlies shooting guard Tony Allen.
Two games into Memphis' first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the 6'4" Allen has badgered and pestered Durant, the NBA's leading scorer, without pause or regard for size difference, screens or superior athleticism.
The impact he has had is noticeable. People are talking. They're saying things. Thinking about things. Seeing things. They're wondering if Durant has finally met his match in a diminutive, unflagging, nettlesome Allen.
Completely stopping Durant has never been an option.
Cliches, clever turns of phrase and frequent expressions of disbelief are tossed around regularly, all aimed at conveying the same thing: Durant isn't someone you remove from the equation. He's someone you maybe limit. He's someone you make work for numbers and hope for the best.
Through two games, Durant is posting very Durant numbers, averaging 34.5 points and 5.5 assists on 47.2 percent shooting. Those numbers alone don't say much of anything. Durant is being Durant. Allen hasn't made a difference. Next question.
But Allen has made a difference. A big one.
When Durant is guarded by Allen, he's shooting 36 percent (9-of-25) from the floor in this series, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst. When he's being defended by anyone else on the Grizzlies, he's hitting 55.6 percent of his shots (10-of-18).
A pesky Allen presented similar issues for Durant last spring, when the Grizzlies took down the Thunder—who were without Russell Westbrook—in the second round. In the series' final two games, both of which Oklahoma City lost, Durant shot a combined 15-of-48 (31.3 percent), courtesy of a mauling Grizzlies defense spearheaded by Allen.
The difference is obvious. And huge. And it's one Allen has achieved by grinding out defensive possessions, relying on smarts and will over size and athleticism.
Grantland's Zach Lowe shared a conversation he had two seasons ago with Allen about defending Durant, the contents of which remain relevant today:
I will never forget chatting with Tony Allen two seasons ago about how he squirmed around pin-down screens designed to free Kevin Durant for jumpers. He didn’t accept the fundamental basis of the question — that it was a hard thing to do. “You just do it,” he would say. I would counter: “OK, so, there is one large man running at you with the singular goal of blocking your path, and a slithery 7-foot scorer directing you into that large man’s chest. What is the best strategy for avoiding that large man?” And he would respond, again and again: “You just do it. You don’t get screened.”
No technical answer. No fancy lingo. No complex, over-the-head explanation.
Just do it.
Make Durant work.
Make life difficult.
To this point, that's exactly what Allen has done.
Praising Allen is easy. Acknowledging that hard work is the foundation on which his defense against Durant stands is simple. But what does that mean? What is he doing? Curiosity can and should get the best of us all at some point.
Daily Thunder's Royce Young and The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater both penned terrific breakdowns of what Allen has done to tantalize Durant while on defense. Slater provided a treasure trove of videos, some of which will be used here to help drive home Allen's amazing Tony Allen-ness.
As someone tasked with guarding different positions and types of players, Allen's defensive strategies vary by the game. The one constant is, again, his effort. There is no such thing as a stationary Allen. Even when his opponent is standing still, Allen's feet tend to shuffle back and forth.
The most immobile Allen has been this series is when he's defending post-ups, his feet firmly planted as he bodies up Durant or someone else. In every other instance, he's moving, staying loose in some way.
Unlike many of Allen's peers, his defensive sets begin with ball denial. He doesn't wait for Durant to catch the rock before entering Tony Allen mode, as we see below:
Fronting your man is a risky gambit that leaves team defense vulnerable to backdoor cuts and alley-hoops. But Allen can front Durant because of how solid the Grizzlies help defense is. Marc Gasol is between the basket and Durant, preventing any off-ball monkey business the Thunder may draw up. He also makes a beeline for Durant as soon as the ball leaves Westbrook's hands.
More than anything, this is the benefit of playing on a Grizzlies team that can defend as one, operating on different, tacit communication levels. Still, it takes smarts and really (really) big onions for Allen to play in front of Durant.
Entry passes from that position are dangerous. A line drive won't do it. It has to be a lob. And with the way help comes from other Memphis defenders—quickly—it has to be a perfectly placed lob. Westbrook's pass was asking to be grabbed, so Allen grabbed it. Fundamental stuff.
Another fundamental aspect of Allen's defense on Durant is his willingness and ability to fight over screens. Anyone who has ever watched him defend knows he rarely gets picked off, an incredible feat for someone his size. Smaller guards are liable to be swallowed whole by screens since they're usually being set by someone much bigger and—in some cases—beefier than they are.
Here he is getting around Kendrick Perkins' screen:
We call this a "screen" because there really isn't another word for it. It's a half-baked screen. It's Perkins playing Juvenile in his head and backing that thang up. I don't know what it is. Whatever it is, Allen gets around it.
Sticking with Durant allows Allen to get the block-steal. That's not a thing, but that's also most definitely what this is. Durant clearly wasn't expecting Allen to rain on his "open shot." Perkins should have handled him, so when Allen grabs his block-steal, Durant appears both frustrated and confused.
Lowe directs us to a more impressive example of Allen's feisty play off screens:
This is one of those effort things. It's ineffable, difficult to describe. Allen puts his head down and gets around another, more acceptable screen set by Perkins. Doing so forces the ball out of Durant's hands since he's immediately harassed, the importance of which cannot be overstated.
Oklahoma City's offense isn't complicated, folks. Head coach Scott Brooks wants the ball in Westbrook's and Durant's hands, and he employs a basic variety of screens and casual misdirection to create space for them to work.
Hounding Durant is half the battle. There will always be situations in games where he's forced to create every aspect of the possession for himself. Depriving him of "easier" looks makes life far more difficult for him.
That's just what Allen is doing. There are other things, of course—I urge you to check out Slater's and Young's pieces one last time—but Allen is keeping things simple, playing smart and exuding effort.
And it's working.
Durant Stopper or Universal Pest?
Not to take anything away from Allen, but Durant is not making life especially difficult for him in certain instances. Not through the first two games.
When he's off the ball, Durant isn't doing enough to get position. Most of the time, he comes to the ball, relies on screens to (unsuccessfully) create separation or actually just waits.
While he's no bull, Durant does have roughly a half-foot and 25-plus pounds on Allen. He needs to be more aggressive, ensuring he uses those differences to his advantage.
Take this offensive set from the first quarter of Game 2. Durant manages to get in front of Allen, allowing Derek Fisher to toss him an easy entry pass:
You'll now notice Allen instantly crowds him:
What you'll also notice is Allen almost daring him to go baseline, where Gasol waits. But neither Gasol nor Allen is preventing Durant from trying to back the former down, or even just attacking the rim in hopes of drawing a foul.
The Grizzlies won't commit fouls at the rim as often as other teams, but it's worth a try when attempting to exploit mismatches. Instead of attacking or pushing the issue on the block, though, Durant settles for a low-percentage, contested fadeaway:
File that under missed opportunities.
Something similar transpires in the video below:
Allen once again does a nice job of denying Durant the ball. But Durant also leads Allen into Westbrook and Mike Conley, creating a crowd around the rock, making it more difficult for the Thunder's point man to deliver it to him.
Once Durant sags off Westbrook, that's basically the end of his involvement. He becomes a spectator, looking on as Westbrook settles for a three, never once journeying inside the arc in the nine seconds it takes his teammate to fire away.
If he's not going to move, he makes Allen's unenviable job easier. Do something. Anything. Just move. Cut. Attack.
Kevin Durant's biggest weakness remains getting position when he doesn't have ball. Tony Allen just denied him the catch.— Robin Lundberg (@robinlundberg) April 22, 2014
Just so we're clear, this isn't an insult to Durant. He's Kevin "I can usually do whatever I want" Durant. Neither I nor anyone else should doubt his basketball acumen and scoring ability. Yet he's helping Allen look good.
Consider what Young says here:
It’s not that Allen has solved how to guard Durant — because again, he still got 36 and missed some good looks he probably should’ve made — but it’s that his bulldog tenacity is disrupting the Thunder’s offensive rhythm. Instead of Durant getting an easy catch and going into a move or making the next pass or whatever, it’s all a challenge. There’s a lot of hesitating, a lot of waiting, a lot of catching the ball six feet further out than you’re supposed to.
Allen is a terrific perimeter defender. One of the best. Maybe the absolute best. That doesn't mean he's figured Durant out. He hasn't shut him down. He's made him work, stripped him of normal comforts. That's what shows.
Is Tony Allen a Kevin Durant stopper?
"It's not like I'm being totally locked down," Durant said of Allen's defense on him, via Slater. "It's not like I'm nonexistent."
Durant is very much there, shooting and scoring, doing Kevin Durant things. But Allen is there too, doing very Tony Allen things, ensuring Durant's shooting and scoring don't come as easily, which is more than most others can say.
And for that, the Grizzlies, as they attempt to pull off an improbable upset, must be thankful.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise attributed.