The supreme talents – the All-Americans, the All-Stars – can take possessions off and still score their 25 or 30 points a night. They can pick their spots to play defense, which in reality means going for a steal here and there, and then mostly defer on the hard work. You know, staying with their man step-for-step, cleaning the glass – sorry, I don’t do windows – or risking humiliation by contesting potential dunks – sorry, I’m not ending up on somebody’s poster.
Which brings us to the two most beloved basketball players in town: University of Memphis forward D.J. Stephens and Grizzlies guard Tony Allen.
Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen, right, who has been known for his stellar defensive play since arriving in town before the 2010-2011 season, has been the team’s constant game-changer this season.
(Photo: AP Photo/Lance Murphey)
Tigers coach Josh Pastner, in a moment of post-game hyperbole, called Stephens “one of the five greatest Tigers of all time.” Allen long ago adopted “The Grindfather” moniker; he also plays with such speed and mania that he can make former Grizz favorite Shane Battier look like he’s moving in slow motion.
Understandably, Pastner and Hollins would like to share these personal bottles of 24-Hour Energy with everyone else in their locker rooms.
“Play like D.J.,” Pastner implores the Tigers pretty much daily.
Even at the NBA level, where comparing players can be a bit trickier, Lionel Hollins had no choice after the Grizzlies’ one-point loss to Indiana on Martin Luther King Jr. Day but to tell his team to play like Tony.
“That’s exactly what Coach said when he walked in here,” point guard Mike Conley said. “If we could have everybody playing with the energy and passion of Tony every night, we’d be a very hard team to beat.”
True. So let’s put the obvious question out there: Why can’t the rest of the Grizzlies play like Tony? Why can’t the rest of the Tigers play like D.J.?
After the Pacers had escaped FedExForum with an 82-81 victory, David West sat in front of his locker and tried to explain the Tony Allen Factor when, as always, Allen’s stat line – 6 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals – couldn’t begin to do the man justice. Consider the end of that game:
With 57.4 seconds left, the Grizzlies called a timeout. While Conley, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph huddled with the coaches, Allen was wandering around over by the bench. This is not unusual, this is Tony hearing a band that plays only in his head and him marching to his own beat and never even looking at the sheet music.
“We get on him about leaving the huddle early,” Conley said with a laugh, “because he never remembers the play once he comes back. But that’s the kind of guy he is – if he makes a mistake, he’ll make up for it right away. If we make mistakes, he’s got our back.”
After the timeout, the Grizz trailing 81-79, Allen missed a layup at 44.9 seconds. He also got his own rebound at 42.8. At 34.9, Gay missed a jump shot. Allen rebounded the ball at 32.9. At 14.9, Conley drove and missed a layup as center Roy Hibbert got a piece of the ball. Hibbert grabbed the rebound at 12.9. Allen stole the ball back at 11.7, made a hard curl into the lane and dumped the ball down to Randolph at 10.5 for a layup that tied the score. The crowd went nuts.
Being redshirted this season was a consideration for University of Memphis guard/forward D.J. Stephens. But Tigers fans surely are happy he has been on the court this year, as the senior has been the heart and soul of the team.
(Photo: Spruce Derden–USA TODAY Sports)
“He almost single-handedly took that game from us,” West said. “He’s dangerous in those situations where you can’t find him. He gets rebounds, steals …”
Stephens perhaps seems easier to find because, well, how do you miss a guy flying through the air, his cape brushing against the rafters, before landing with a thunderous DUNK! But to categorize Stephens’ game as just so many Top 10 plays is to cheapen what he does for the Tigers. His 38 blocks lead Conference USA and his 6.7 rebounds lead the team. Yet that no more tells the whole story than saying Allen is among the NBA’s leaders in steals and was NBA All-Defensive First Team last season.
“He’s a player you need on a championship team,” the Tigers’ Joe Jackson said of Stephens, who has had his own game-changing sequences this season, including the put-back dunk and block that keyed a fastbreak and took the Tigers from two points down to two points ahead against Harvard.
Game-changers, mood-changers, culture-changers, they are all of that.
“D.J.’s the most energized player in the country,” Jackson said.
“That’s just Tony,” Wayne Ellington said hours before being traded to Cleveland. “It is a gift.”
And so there’s your answer. The way they play is a gift – the gift that keeps on giving.