By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
MEMPHIS – Tony Allen started shaking his head even before the question was half-asked, a slow, rolling, sheepish shake punctuated with a frustrated fist pump.
Er, about those 4-point plays, Tony?
“I blame it on missed coverages,” Allen said. “Maybe the big probably called a certain coverage and I was in another coverage, which allowed me to foul him. I don’t know, we’ll look at the film and we’ll have to try to get better at that. Because obviously we’ve been doing that a lot throughout the year.”
Allen, Memphis’ ace perimeter defender was ‘fessing up but not just on his foul on Russell Westbrook‘s 3-pointer with 26.6 seconds left that erased the Grizzlies’ 85-81 lead and forced them again to survive in overtime. He got caught tripping Westbrook on his heave from midcourt at the very end, with :00.9 showing on the clock that, had the shot gone, would have put the Oklahoma City guard on the line to tie.
As it was, Westbrook could have tied it the hard way if he had made his first two foul shots, intentionally missed the third, then had a Thunder teammate or himself tip in the miss.
Imagine Allen’s angst had that happened. The first one, forcing five extra minutes at FedEx Forum before Memphis escaped 98-95, was bad enough.
“Yeah, that was a bonehead play on myself. I take full responsibility for battling Westbrook on that specific play,” Allen said.
Allen could apologize with a smile because at night’s end, the Grizzlies had taken a 2-1 lead over the No. 2-seeded Thunder, with Game 4 set for Saturday night. He could apologize, too, because his body of work contained a lot more than a couple bonehead plays.
Most of Allen’s props come from his work as a pest and, if everything lines up right, a stopper. Against Kevin Durant in this series, as fellow Hang Time denizen Jeff Caplan chronicled two games into the best-of-seven series, Allen been a whole lot of the former, making the NBA’s scoring champ work hard (25-for-53) for point totals (33 and 36) that were right at his average.
But in Game 3, Allen veered toward the latter. Durant took 27 shots and made 10 on his way to 30, and came away with nothing for the eight 3-point attempts he missed. It was hard to tell whether Allen was more up in Durant’s shooting stroke or in his head.
But wait, this time there was more: Allen was an offensive factor, an unusual role for him. In 2013-14, the 6-foot-4 product of Oklahoma State and the city of Chicago averaged just 9.0 points and 7.5 field goal attempts. But he doubled that in Game 3, shooting 8-for-15 off the bench and scoring 16 points.
Better yet for Memphis, there were times in another fiercely fought – and frequently ugly – 53-minute game between two evenly matched and overly familiar opponents when Allen, of all players, seemed to have the best idea of what he wanted to do offensively.
Who would have imagined that, given OKC’s firepower and Memphis’ Clydesdales down low? But the X-factor people keep waiting for Thunder guard Reggie Jackson to become in these playoffs, Allen already is.
And yet, when so many others were standing around, Allen was the guy cutting back door to take a simple bounce pass from Mike Conley. Or worming his way into a seam for a rebound and putback for the Grizzlies’ final two points of the first quarter.
Or, for that matter, scoring six straight to open the second quarter and teaming with backup point guard Beno Udrih to string together 18 consecutive points for Memphis, buying time for Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and the rest.
Allen mattered late, too, with a baseline drive and dunk and a layup with Westbrook on him. Those two buckets broke the 81-81 and gave Memphis its four-point cushion before, y’know, bonehead.
“People are going to see the highlight of Russell Westbrook hitting a three and getting fouled,” Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said. “But the guy [Allen] did 99 percent of everything on the floor and it was spectacular. That’s the guy that we all love with his passion, how hard he plays, and his IQ is off the charts. He was aggressive. He was decisive. He took some shots. He was open. … those shots are going to fall for him.”
Some of Allen’s jumpers are more pancake than parabola. But then, the same might be said in this one of Durant and Westbrook, too (4-for-13 from the arc). They both rushed shots and took some they probably shouldn’t.
Their worst sequence came deep in OT, with Memphis up 95-92 and less than 30 seconds left. Westbrook forced a 3-pointer from 27 feet just to the right of center – completely ignoring a wide-open teammate on the left baseline. The rebound got thrown out to Durant at 29 feet and he clanged his, too.
OKC’s frustrations are the same as always, focused on Westbrook, his irrepressibility-slash-irresponsibility in seeking out his own scoring chances and the offense not dedicating itself to getting Durant better shots. Allen, one could argue, is the Grizzlies’ Westbrook, a nightly adventure, a.k.a., sixty shades of cray.
But Allen is a role player, a defense-first guy, who knows his place in the Grizzlies’ pecking order and can be reeled in as needed. Westbrook? His star is brighter, his role and ego are bigger, and the ever-looping risk/reward of his game is way more interwoven into the Thunder’s dreams and nightmares. If their worst nights were actual physical trauma, Allen’s would be a flesh wound, Westbrook’s would be getting gut-shot.
One of them has a conscience, too, that propels him to make up for his mishaps by returning to his roots.
As Allen said of the 4-point plays, “I hate for myself to be in one of those plays. [After getting caught up in one] I’m trying to get back out there and get another steal or rebound or stop. Force a turnover. Y’know, get it back on the defensive end because I know it was me who made the bonehead play.”
The Grizzlies love their bonehead, three games into this grindhouse series. The Thunder, maybe less so.