Grizzlies' Tony Allen Shares His Secrets to Being the NBA's Premier Star Stopper

Jared Zwerling@JaredZwerlingNBA Senior WriterFebruary 5, 2015

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One of the most entertaining experiences in Memphis is spending time around Grizzlies defensive specialist Tony Allen.

He talks to refs during timeouts, raps loudly to music in the weight room, shows his sense of humor while recording team videos, has playful conversations with kids during community events and greets team employees with his own term of endearment, "What's up, killa!"

So it's only fitting that Allen's animated personality extends to his trademark talent guarding the NBA's top scorers, which Kobe Bryant acknowledged this season by saying, "He plays harder than everybody else defensively." Many times after a steal, Allen, an 11-year veteran, will smack himself on the butt, say to himself, "Good D, T.A.!" or look at the scorer's table where the media is sitting and yell, "First team!"

Not only is that a nod to his All-Defensive First Team selections in 2012 and '13, but it also serves as a reminder to those same courtside reporters.

"I was highly upset I didn't get put on that first team last year, and it kind of hurt my heart," said Allen, who's averaging a career-high two steals per game and holds his opponents to lower percentages all over the court. "I missed a lot of games I guess, but how did I not make it? Unfortunately the media votes on that [since last year] and they snubbed me this time."

While in Memphis recently, Bleacher Report organized an exclusive film session with Allen, who broke down his defensive development and skills while guarding the NBA's most lethal scorers. Below is a rare look inside the mind of arguably the league's best perimeter defender, presented from Allen's perspective and edited for clarity and length.

Tony Allen is tied for third best in the NBA at two steals per game, a career high. "Ever since Tony joined the team, our defense has gotten better every year," Mike Conley said. "He's a guy that just has constant energy, and his energy pushes everybody else to another level."
Tony Allen is tied for third best in the NBA at two steals per game, a career high. "Ever since Tony joined the team, our defense has gotten better every year," Mike Conley said. "He's a guy that just has constant energy, and his energy pushes everybody else to another level."Brandon Dill/Associated Press

Defense Is an Evolution

When I was first drafted by Boston in 2004, I thought I was a scorer after being named the Big 12 Conference Player of the Year. But being around some maxed-out players, and after my ACL injury in 2007, I had to find my niche in the league.

Paul Pierce helped me out, saying, "If you can guard me in practice every day, you can guard just about anybody." He gave me confidence. A lot of my influence comes from him; he's the best at getting ready to play a game. I also looked at the work ethic of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.

Then Doc Rivers instilled that defensive role in me before I faced Kobe Bryant in the 2010 Finals. Doc put a Duracell battery in my back, telling me, "We're going to need you to be the stopper." I believed in him. That year was the first time he actually put me in a playoff rotation. He told me he trusted and believed in me. He said, "Don't worry about anything on the offensive end. I just want you to be the best defender you can out there."

Allen and Kobe Bryant battling in the 2010 Finals.
Allen and Kobe Bryant battling in the 2010 Finals.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Kobe is the best player I've ever played against—period, point blank. He's a scary sight. Back on Feb. 22, 2005—my rookie season—he fouled me out. I had six fouls in eight minutes.

Luckily in the 2010 Finals, I did a good job of making things difficult for Kobe, making him shoot close to 30 shots per game and holding him to 21 points in one game. While the Lakers won Game 7, I felt good after that, after going against Paul every day in practice and then getting the opportunity to stick Kobe for the national championship. I told myself, No matter what the name is, I'm going to take pride in defense and I'm going to try to be the best at it. I haven't looked back since.

The defense and energy I've brought to Memphis since 2010 has had a snowball effect. Now the Grindhouse is a culture, a household thing—all heart, grit, grind. I coined that team phrase after we beat the Thunder on Feb. 8, 2011, when I had 27 points and five steals (below). O.J. Mayo used to say I was a "thirsty dog." But one of my Twitter fans said it the best, calling me "The Grindfather."

Preparation Makes Perfect

The day before a game, I have Grizzlies video coordinator Dan Hartfield edit the previous two or three games of whatever scorer I've got, and I watch him on my iPad. I want to see how he's scoring, so I can be ready for those sets. I know every team's plays before the game. Even when I'm in a team huddle, I only need to hear the play and I'm up from the bench ready to play.

When I see those sets form on the court, I'm thinking to myself, He's about to come off of this down screen and I'm about to get a back pick right here, so if I get low, I can avoid the back pick or fight through it. Or when the down screen comes, I can act like I'm going to lock and trail but I'll fake it and shoot the gap, and I might get a steal.

Teams have one goal: Get my guy the ball. So if I study those sets, I can cut through a few corners and try to keep up with him, and I can make my guy do something else he hasn't practiced (below). My antennas are up, all the time.

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Before practice starts, defense is the first thing we go over as a team in a film session. Then defense in scrimmages becomes a pride thing. It's like, "I don't want you to score on me, you can't score on me," and all this trash-talking, but it makes us better. Then I'll work on my different layups I'm going to get in the game. I score a lot of my points in transition off steals.

After practice, I work out for about 30 minutes to keep myself strong, keep my core tight. Defense is just effort and some guys are fatigued. The weight room helps me get ready to play defense at all costs.

I love the full-body workout (B/R videos here) because I can feel it in the game. I don't want guys posting me up and pushing me all around on the floor when they're backing me down. After the workout, I feel like if somebody comes running out of the blind side and pushes me, I can catch my balance and get ready to attack back. My body is ready even against much bigger guys like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Joe Johnson. LeBron is the most physical matchup for me. He's strong, but I've got inner strength.

During the workout, I listen to Southern hip-hop on the speakers and my favorite artists are Future, Yo Gotti, Rich Homie Quan and Lil Durk, who's from Chicago. Their beats get me very hyped on game days, too, but I don't work out then; I've got to keep my body fresh. I just stretch on a foam roller and use resistance bands in the locker room, while watching our opponent's previous game on the TV. I've also watched their games on my League Pass at home.

Before taking the court, I just tell my guys, "Let's get ready, let's go!" I hit everybody on the chest and let them know we've got to have all heart.

Order on the Court

I always let the refs know before the game, "Hey, I come to play ball on the defensive end." If I'm letting the refs know that throughout the game and I'm into a guy early, the ref can understand my aggressiveness, as opposed to playing my guy light one way and then getting aggressive another way, and then the ref might be likely to make a call against me. Also, if I do my work early, my guy will have more wear and tear on his body down the stretch and his shot won't be as fluid.

I love the old Bad Boys Pistons style of play, but the refs aren't letting it slide too often. So I've got to be smart or I can pick up an early foul. Also, when the other team is in the bonus, I can't be as aggressive. So I just want to contest shots.

Another thing you have to be careful about is when a guy shoots and you kick your foot out, they're giving the offensive player that foul. You've also got to be aware of the flops, and the refs don't like hand-checking when players drive. So what I try to do is throw my forearm on my guy and get my bump in early while moving my feet (below). If I move my feet and I'm right alongside with you and I give you the bump, the bump is legal.

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With a player like Kevin Durant—and anybody 6'7" and up because I'm 6'4"—the best thing to do is sit on the front of his leg because he's going to try to post me and then rely on Marc Gasol, the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, to come over and help. I know if KD catches it straight up, he's going to score, get an assist or get fouled. And KD has gotten more aggressive in his career, so I've got to make it difficult for him to catch it, especially because he's been trying to get me with that one-legged fadeaway.

In one play during our playoff matchup last year, a few seconds went off just by me fronting KD, and I got the steal by jumping up (below). I got better at that in Boston. Bryan Doo, the Celtics strength and conditioning coach, used to do a lot of explosion exercises where he bounced a ball, and I had to go run, jump and catch it. I fell in love with that.

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In that playoff series, I made it a little disruptive for KD. I probably got in his head for two or three games, but KD is KD, man; there's no stopping him. I made some plays, but that wasn't really my matchup. I'm a 2-guard. I just came in when Tayshaun Prince got into foul trouble, and I did whatever I had to do for the team.

I also work on jumping and closing out on shooters without fouling (below). With the athleticism I have, I can get that block if you shoot it too slow. So a lot of guys either shoot it too fast or if I know they're trying to kick their feet out, I just jump the opposite way. Just in case you get past me with the head fake, I always kick my foot out to stop the ball. That resets the shot clock to 14. I need to be careful, though; I once got suspended for that.

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When I'm facing up a guy, like Kobe Bryant, I don't watch his feet; I try to give him one way to go. Through my film study, I know which way to force him based on his moves in the previous game. In one play earlier this season, I forced Kobe left to the middle, which we're not supposed to do; that's our team principle. But in the previous game when Kobe played the Clippers, he took Matt Barnes baseline and reversed dunked. So I said to myself, You're not going to Matt Barnes me, and I forced him left and into a turnover (below).

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I also had my hands low because Kobe likes to swipe through with the ball. I defended Chandler Parsons the same way recently and I stole the ball (below).

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But one guy I haven't figured all the way out yet is James Harden. He's pretty crafty. I'm not impressed with his ball-handling, but his finishing skills are scary. Even though he's lefty, if he goes right he's going to put the ball out and get the foul. It's kind of tough because you don't want to get a foul called. And once you get your first or second foul, you kind of ease up.

Analysis, Without the Analytics

When the opponent is coming down the court, I will help my teammates by calling out the name of the play being set up, so we're all on the same page defensively. Or my teammates are yelling at me, "Watch out for the screen, here comes the back pick, T.A., go!" Sometimes I've got to gamble for the steal, and part of that is knowing the other team's offensive sets (below). But I also need to work on staying more engaged in plays to prevent open shots and offensive rebounds.

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I never say anything to my guy; I know it's all business. Whoever the heckler is on the opposing bench just talking stuff might say something crazy to me. Somebody on the bench is always talking. So I might tell him to look at my resume, that I'm a first-team all-defender.

When I'm guarding somebody, I don't play percentages. I hate analytics and Synergy because a lot of times I've heard a coach say, "This guy can't shoot, he can't do this, he can't do that." And he's the one that ends up hurting us. During the game, I'm making sure to look up at the scoreboard, but I'm not looking at my points; I'm looking at my guy's points. That just keeps me motivated.

I just study the opponent in my own way, one game at time. I have short-term memory; on to the next game. I only have one long-lasting memory: my big block against Pau Gasol in Game 5 of the 2010 Finals, which we ended up winning.

After a game, I look at the stat sheet and how many times my opponent scored. Let's say it was Monta Ellis recently in Memphis; he had 25 points. When I checked out of the game in the first quarter, he had three points. At the end of the half, he had 11. When I left the game in the second half, he still had 11. I didn't get back in the game and he ended up with 25. So I'm looking at the stat sheet like, "Monta Ellis had 25. That's my fault."

I just know when I'm at my all-time high playing defense, my opponent isn't good for 25 points. My goal is I don't want to stop playing until my guy stops playing. I want to leave my print on the game. That's all I care about. I don't care about what people say about me; I don't want anybody buttering me up.

All I'm worried about is how we finish up, and the next opponent.

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.