Someday a professor of sports science will write a book on the Grizzlies’ Tony Allen or the good professor’s head will explode in the trying.
“How he goes, we go,” forward Zach Randolph said after Allen had played his usual role as Designated Defensive Disrupter in the Grizzlies’ had-to-have-it 107-102 win over the Miami Heat at FedExForum on Wednesday, April 9.
“He came in and pretty much showed his demo – why he made first-team defense in this league,” guard Courtney Lee said.
Yes, he did.
By traditional numbers, Allen contributed six points, four fouls, three steals, two assists and one rebound in 24 minutes against the Heat.
Yet that doesn’t even tell half the story. No more than the fact Allen had the game’s highest +/- at +16, an indication that the Grizzlies were at their best when he was on the floor. This is actually true, mind you, but loses all its relevance when you notice that LeBron James, who scored 37 points, had a -8.
No, the way you calculate Allen’s value is in the macro – the Grizzlies won to stay within a game of Phoenix for the last playoff spot in the West – and by looking at the effect on everyone around him. And by that I mean everyone from point guard Mike Conley (26 points), center Marc Gasol (20 points and 14 rebounds), Randolph (25 points and 11 rebounds) and the screaming masses inside The Grindhouse.
Let’s be honest: Early in the game, with way too many fans sporting No. 6 James jerseys, it felt like the not-so-distant days when the Lakers would roll into town and the seats would turn purple and gold. It also felt a bit too detached, as though everyone was holding back and waiting for the realization that the season was going to effectively end with a loss to the Heat.
So Allen came in off the bench and raised the temperature. Sure, he shot a wide-open corner 3-pointer off the side of the backboard and missed a layup. But after struggling – and to be blunt, sometimes moping – the last few games, The Grindfather was in full force.
The Grizzlies trailed by seven when Allen entered the game with 4:45 left in the first quarter. Less than a minute later he was making up for a Conley turnover by stealing a pass from King James and then whipping a possession-saving behind-the-back pass while flying out of bounds. That possession ended with a Conley assist on a Z-Bo 3-pointer that cut the lead to two points.
“When Tony’s being Tony and he’s making big plays defensively, doing the little things offensively, he picks everybody up,” Conley said. “He doesn’t have to say a word. You see the energy. The energy in the building is different. The energy for our team is different.”
Former coach Lionel Hollins had an infamous love-hate relationship with the Tony Allen equation – the mistakes you don’t understand, the great plays no one else will make. First-year coach Dave Joerger is still trying to get his head around the equation, too, and Allen’s playing time became a bit of a yo-yo as his production dropped off.
Joerger started his post-game presser by saying, “Smile, Tony Allen’s back,” but we also know Good Tony can be hard to capture. Still, Good Tony usually outweighs Bad Tony and fans get this instinctively. They cheered when he entered the game. They stayed with him through the bad plays, anticipating the redemptive good plays.
“It’s been a while since I had some fun,” Allen admitted afterward. “I’m trying to find my way back to playing at a high level. It’s been a rough eight to 10 games personally. But it ain’t about me. I thank the fans for putting up with me, for hanging in there with me.”
The only question going forward: Will Joerger hang in there with him?
“If he takes a risk or a gamble, we can support that,” Joerger said. “It comes from being solid first. I thought he did that tonight.”
He was Tony being Tony. That’s all the science there is to it.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.