On Monday night, we were treated to another thriller, courtesy of the mighty beast that is the Western Conference. In a back-and-forth affair that required an overtime period to decide a winner, the Memphis Grizzlies upset the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Chesapeake Energy Arena by a final score of 111-105, knotting up their first-round series at 1-1. With home court advantage now in their favor, the next two games will be played in the Grind House, giving the Grizzlies an opportunity to put the Thunder on the ropes before they head back to Oklahoma on April 29th for a fifth game.
In this battle of attrition, the Thunder were carried by the gruesome twosome of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who scored 65 of their 105 total points. For the Grizzlies, Zach Randolph had a big performance, leading the way with 25 points, and Mike Conley chimed in with a double-double (19 points, 12 assists).
Durant wound up scoring 36 points in Game Two, because, well, he’s Kevin Durant, but it was the way in which he reached that number that is important: 28 field goals, 12 threes and 8 free throw attempts. Quite simply, given his size and scoring ability, he’s going to get his — at this point, it’s nearly impossible to prevent him from putting up big scoring numbers. However, if the Grizzlies can frustrate him and make his life as difficult as it can possibly get, it’ll put them in winning situation, as we saw last night.
Durant’s reputation as an elite scorer is well known at this point, yet he transformed his game tremendously this season by becoming more of a facilitator–a big reason why he’s the favorite amongst many to take home MVP honors. But the way the Grizzlies play him defensively forces him back into a primarily scoring role. Their suffocating defense limits his touches and give him few options, and when he does have the ball, they don’t give him the room to develop any sort of rhythm.
In Game One, he was able to get out in transition, attack the Grizzlies’ defense before it was able to set up, and spot-up for good looks at the basket. In Game Two, they made adjustments by hedging hard on pick-and-rolls, sticking to him like glue off the ball and ensuring that, no matter where he went, there was a blue jersey in sight when he attacked the basket. It also helps that they knocked down some shots from outside the paint, which limited the Thunder’s fast-break opportunities.
But it was Tony Allen who was the unsung hero — his defense on Kevin Durant, especially down the stretch, was what pushed the NBA’s scoring leader out of his comfort zone. The majority of Durant’s points were scored when Allen was either on the bench or guarding someone else, no matter how much Durant may want to deny Allen’s individual impact.
“[Tony Allen] is a good defender, but they’re a team,” Durant told The Oklahoman. “They do a great job. They’re not going to let me play one-on-one with anybody. But he’s tough because he’s small and he gets up under you and he’s good at contesting shots.”
Allen’s ball denials were instrumental in limiting his activity in half-court sets. Durant routinely fought through screens in an attempt to get the ball, yet Allen stuck with him, forcing him far away from his sweet spots, which took the Thunder out of their offense.
Kevin Durant has made 6 of his first 20 shots against Tony Allen in this series
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 22, 2014
The reason Allen is so successful is because the Grizzlies’ system allows him to go balls-to-the-wall on the defensive end, and with the help of Gasol and Z-Bo, he’s able to front KD without having to worry about getting beat backdoor.
Tony Allen held Kevin Durant to 13 pts on 5-of-14 shooting (36%), but Durant scored 20 pts on 8-of-11 shooting (73%) against all others
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 20, 2014
Allen was a bulldog all night long, but some of the stops he made in the final minute of the fourth quarter demonstrated just how great of a defender he is. Nursing a two-point lead with 53.8 seconds remaining in regulation, he fought through a screen and took Durant out of the play, which resulted in him moving over to the wing and waving on Westbrook as if to say, “Go ahead, you’ve got this one.” Then, with just under 30 seconds to go, he hugged Durant’s hip on a high screen from Kendrick Perkins, and got a finger on his three-point attempt which ended up right in the Grizzlies’ hands. And before Durant hit that incredible four-point play, Allen got a hand on Westbrook’s pass and nearly tipped it out of bounds.
The Grizzlies aren’t your prototypical seventh seed. Without Gasol in the lineup this season, they were 10-13, which is a big reason why they fell to the bottom of the playoff race. However, with him in uniform, they were 40-19, holding opponents to 93.1 points per game on 44 percent shooting. The combination of himself on the low block and Tony Allen on the wings is devastating defensively. Allen can stick with players of all shapes and sizes, while Gasol does an excellent job of anchoring their defense. It’s the reason why he walked away with Defensive Player of the Year honors last season.
You can expect the Thunder to make adjustments for Thursday night’s game, but we’ve been down this road before. Whatever it is, Tony Allen has a way of getting under Kevin Durant’s skin. The fact that he’s giving up six-or-seven inches doesn’t phase him; he just uses his bottomless pit of energy to harass him all game long, and when that’s combined with sound help defense, it’s frustrating, ugly and effective.