Inside the Mind of Tony Allen

Michael Wallace, ESPN (

“When they talk about the Bruce Bowens, Dennis Rodmans and Michael Coopers, I want them to remember my name, too,” Allen said. “I’m not just playing this game to be average. I want to be elite. I think I am, and I’ve proven it this year. It’s all right to be acknowledged; nothing wrong with that.”

“He changes games in certain situations,” Curry, the league MVP, said of Allen. “The next game, we [want to] move it side to side and make him have to make decisions as opposed to just being locked in one-on-one defensively, which is probably his strong suit.”

“Do your work early, compete from tipoff,” Allen said. “Be physical, play without fouling, make every shot tough, and don’t get discouraged

Allen’s confidence in his defense is never shaken. But when asked entering the playoffs if there is any player he thinks has gotten the better of him this season, he didn’t hesitate to drop a familiar name.

“Klay Thompson,” Allen said. “I felt like I wasn’t engaged. I don’t have any excuses. I pulled a hamstring that game and just wasn’t locked in. But Klay Thompson is definitely on my radar from now on.”

Allen had a career season before shutting it down the final three weeks to make sure he was healthy for the start of the playoffs. He tied a career high and ranked third in the league with 2.05 steals per game this season and ranked first in individual defensive rating. According to SportVU, Allen held offensive players he defended to 7.5 percentage points lower than their average field goal shooting percentage.

“You can ask that same question to LeBron, to Steph Curry, to James Harden about the MVP,” Allen said. “I don’t see too many people signing up on defense to do this. I want to be that guy. I’ve been that guy.”

When James came to town March 25, Allen prepared physically and mentally an entire week in advance to brace for an aggressive approach from the Cavaliers superstar. Instead, James scored 20 points but primarily settled in as a facilitator as Cleveland made 14 shots from 3-point range in a 22-point win.

“He didn’t try to go at me,” said Allen, 4 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than James. “And I was kind of upset because I thought he was going to at least try to back me down. I was lifting weights all that week. I was ready for the challenge. But you know what I did see? I saw his IQ, his intelligence, his maturity. He was like, ‘Yo, this battle with me and T.A., hey, it’s nothing to prove. It’s about me finding holes and ways to score where their defense is broken down.’”

Allen has developed an intricate process for each specific showdown. After arriving in Memphis, he was dissatisfied with getting paper copies of scouting reports and demanded a computer-based setup similar to how the Celtics worked under coach Doc Rivers. The Grizzlies now have computer tablets in each locker stall.

“I’d grab our video equipment guy and say, ‘Who I got tomorrow?’” Allen said of looming defensive matchups. “I’d tell him I wanted all of their offensive sets, and I want you to give me their three previous games. I want to see their isolation situations. I want to see every time they caught it in a set when he was aggressive, every time he got it in transition. I would break that down. I study and eat all that up.”

“So when the play is coming, I’ll say in my head, ‘Let me jump to his right hand, because when they call that, I saw on film he went right and then split the pick-and-roll. My mind works like that in the game — in a split second. A light goes off like, ‘OK, I know this play, cool.’ When the pick comes, I’ll just need a little help. And then once I catch back up in front of him, I tell my big fella to get back. Now, we’re back to one-on-one. And the only way you’re going to beat me now is by having a jetpack on your back or something so you can jump clean over me. But it’s one-on-one defense now. So let’s get at it.”

“Memphis can respect a guy who’s real, authentic,” Allen said. “I ain’t no carbon copy. They embrace hard work. It’s a small market. People in this city work 9 to 5 and put on their hard hats. I come out here and try to give them back the kind of work ethic they take to those jobs every day. I leave it all on the court. They might think I’m crazy sometimes, but they love me and what I do. So I love them, too.”

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