By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY – Remember that commercial from last season where Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade haunt each other’s dreams? They got it wrong. Tony Allen, gritty, grimy and forever grinding, is Durant’s worst nightmare.
And now, after Allen made life miserable for Durant in Memphis’ impressive 111-105 overtime victory on the second-seeded Thunder’s home floor Monday night to tie the series 1-1, Allen and his seventh-seeded Grizzlies welcome the soon-to-be-named MVP back to The Grindhouse — where they’ve put away 14 consecutive opponents.
“First thing first, Kevin Durant, he’s the scoring leader, All-Star, probably one of the greatest in the game right now,” Allen said. “But it’s a competition at the end of the day. Basically, it ain’t about me, it’s about the Grizzlies coming in here, basically playing grit-n-grind basketball, holding our hats on the defensive end.”
But it is about you, Mr. Allen. You suffocated Durant into submission in the fourth quarters of last year’s semifinals series without Russell Westbrook and you’re pushing KD’s buttons again with Westbrook by his side.
It seems crazy to say it with Durant scoring 33 and 36 points in the first two games of this wild first-round series between these familiar foes, but those 69 points have come on 53 shots and with Allen draped all over practically every one of them. Nothing phases him, not when Durant drops a miracle 3-point shot that becomes a four-point play after Allen tipped the initial pass or when Durant started to heat up in the fourth quarter after having just 16 points on 6-for-18 shooting after three quarters.
“I [have] got to do my work early,” Allen said. “If that’s being physical with him then trying to push him through screens, just cause havoc the best way possible. The guy still had 36 points. He’s going to get his. The biggest thing is not to get discouraged, just keep fighting throughout the game.”
Allen gives up eight inches to Durant. It doesn’t matter. He burrows under him and invades his space. He swats shots from behind, curling over screens and closing fast to get an outstretched hand high enough to disrupt his shot. The Thunder have to find some answers, have to figure what makes this Allen fellow tick and take him out of his game.
“I wish I knew what made Tony Allen tick,” said teammate Mike Conley, who’s been masterful with 23 assists and three turnovers in the two games. “He’s hard to explain. He’s a guy that comes in every day with a chip on his shoulder. You don’t know why, you don’t know what’s got him mad, what’s got him angry, but you roll with it. I think playing against top-level competition, KD, Russell, those guys, he really gets up for that opportunity and that challenge, and I’m happy to have him on my team.”
Memphis controlled Game 2 virtually from the start, leading for all but just a couple of minutes of the 53 that were needed. Allen and company did a number on the defensive end, holding OKC to 39.8 percent shooting, Memphis shot 49.4 percent with Conley and Beno Udrih — yes, Beno Freaking Udrih — carving up the Thunder for 19 and 14 points, respectively.
Durant didn’t get much help. Westbrook was 11-for-28. Reggie Jackson didn’t make a shot and the rest of the bench was impotent as well.
Allen and the Grizzlies’ punishing defense pushed Durant out of his comfort zone and into taking 12 3-point attempts — two more than the entire Memphis team — including the miracle corner 3 in the final 15 seconds of regulation that helped the Thunder simply get to overtime.
Allen left Thunder coach Scott Brooks lamenting how the Grizzlies put their hands all over Durant and Westbrook to slow them down. He left Durant in a somber mood in the postgame interview room. He spoke softly and often reluctantly, projecting a tone that he wasn’t much interested in discussing what just went down.
“We shot the shots that were open,” Durant said. “I think we settled for a few, but we put ourselves in position to win a basketball game and they made more plays than we did. So that’s the name of the game, so we’re not panicking at all.”
MVPs don’t panic. They produce. And now’s the time for Durant to carry over his historic regular season into the postseason. Since OKC opened the first half of Game 1 as if guzzling rocket fuel, it’s been nothing but mud-buggying ever since.
“Basically it’s just going to be a slugfest,” Allen said. “We’re going to pound it. They’re going to run it. Whoever can come up with the most stops pretty much wins the game.”
Durant and the Thunder have two days to figure out how to find some breathing space on the road, where Allen will be waiting.