OKLAHOMA CITY — The most intriguing chess match for the two coaches in this second-round series isn’t about big vs. small, but how to best utilize their defensive stopper. In Game 1, Oklahoma City’s Thabo Sefolosha and Memphis’ Tony Allen were like two fish out of water.
Normally charged with checking the opposition’s most dangerous scorer, Allen and Sefolosha are stuck guarding each other in this series, which resumes with tonight’s Game 2 at Chesapeake Arena (9:30 p.m. ET, TNT). Allen would typically be hounding Russell Westbrook, but he’s out of the playoffs following knee surgery to repair a meniscus tear. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins has already said he will no longer play his 6-foot-4 grinder on Kevin Durant, whose long frame is stronger than a few years ago, allowing Durant to punish Allen on the post.
Durant is Tayshaun Prince‘s responsibility, and went mostly without the aid of a double-team in Game 1. So Allen, one of the top on-ball defenders in the league, is left to guard Sefolosha, a good corner and wing 3-point shooter, but easily the Thunder’s fourth or fifth option even with Westbrook out. Sefolosha played just 18 minutes in Game 1, scored four points and missed his lone 3-point attempt after averaging 4.6 attempts from beyond the arc in the first-round series against Houston.
“It is kind of odd because you know there’s not really a prolific scorer in my size range,” Allen said. “But it’s about the Grizzlies playing a better game than the Thunder. We’ve got to keep that mindset. But whatever he [Hollins] wants me to do on the defensive end, I’m willing to fill that void.”
The logical maneuver then is to put Allen on sixth man Kevin Martin, who scored 25 points on 8-for-14 shooting and got to the free-throw line seven times in OKC’s 93-91 Game 1 victory. But because Allen starts and Martin comes off the bench, pairing the two can be tricky. Hollins played Allen just 20 minutes in Game 1 and he was on the floor with Martin, who logged 32 minutes, for all of seven minutes.
“They are different without Russell Westbrook,” Allen said. “The last game I was trying to float because I didn’t really know who to key in and lock into. Kevin Martin comes off the bench and I’m starting; when I come out he’s coming in so that’s kind of tough. But we got our feet wet in Game 1. Now it’s Game 2, we know what to expect without Westbrook, we know who are their main characters now and we have to do a better job on Martin, obviously, and you know, not let [Derek] Fisher get so many big-time timely shots, and just try to do a better job on those other guys.”
It wasn’t too unlike Game 1 in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers for Allen. He played 17 minutes while Jerryd Bayless got bumped up for offensive purposes and had to guard Clippers sixth man Jamal Crawford. In Game 2, Allen logged 39 minutes and he averaged 30.5 mpg in the final four games.
So Allen figures to be on the court much more tonight and he must take advantage of the loose defense Sefolosha played on him in Game 1 to knock down open looks (Allen was 1-for-5 from the floor for three points) and use the open space to chase rebounds.
“He’s barely even sticking me,” Allen said.
That’s because Sefolosha is more concerned with dropping down and helping big men Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins defend Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Allen can alter that strategy by making baskets, which in turn helps to free up Memphis’ talented big men.
“My focus is to help the bigs,” Sefolosha said. “Help them rebound, help them get in a situation where Zach and Marc Gasol can’t get too deep in the paint, so basically helping off a little bit. But at the same time, Tony does a lot of good things without the ball and I have to be aware of where he is on the court.”