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To Live and Die with Tony Allen

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It would be understandable for any player heading into a seminal season to be a bit nervous, reserved even, afraid to make a mistake. Tony Allen is not your normal player however; his quirks, flaws, and successes are loved unconditionally by most Memphians, and with (or without) that affection, TA is going to be him, for better or worse.

Tony Allen, the man, the myth, the legend in Memphis.
Tony Allen, the man, the myth, the legend in Memphis.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis, Tennessee (October 29th, 2014)-

Tony Allen is in his zone.

His head is bobbing, mouthing the words to Future's "Go Harder" both to himself and to the entirety of the crowd at FedExForum via the video scoreboard.

I done been lied to
I been neglected
I done had all kind of people turn against me
You try to break me down Ima go harder
You try to break me down Ima go harder
I done took losses
I done been crossed I done heard all kind of rumors that were false
You try to break me down Ima go harder
You try to break me down Ima go harder

The timing of the song and message is fitting; the Memphis Grizzlies are locked in a tremendous battle with the Minnesota Timberwolves, a game that is closer than it probably should be. Memphis held a 9 point lead over Minnesota heading into the 4th, and this lead had shrunk to 2 by the time Tony Allen re-entered the game with 5:39 to go.

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It was time for "The Grindfather", as he is lovingly called in Memphis, to help right the ship and "shut off the water" of the Minnesota offense. Allen had already made an impact on the game; 3 steals, 3 rebounds, and 5 assists to go along with 8 points on 8 shot attempts. The energy Allen brings to the team and game is undeniable; his aggression and passion are contagious for this Memphis roster. It is hard to blame them; Allen is, if nothing else, a warrior, a basketball soldier whose sole goal in life is to end the success of a team's best offensive wing. That guy, when that head gets bobbing, is hard to not get behind.

Unless, of course, Tony Allen is on the bench. He does not play the entire game as he eventually gets subbed out as the contest gets down to the wire for offensive reasons, then brought back in for a key defensive stop. This is not uncommon to Grizzlies fans; for all of his energy and effort, Tony just does not bring a consistent offensive competency every night. He is animated when on the sidelines, engaged and fiery as if he were indeed on the court.

But he isn't. Which leaves Tony Allen in a unique position, one that isn't entirely incomprehensible but isn't ideal either. He is a starter on a potential title contender who isn't capable of consistently finishing games on both sides of the court due to decision making. He is a player who will make you gasp with his defensive disruption and then sigh out that air with a blunder offensively. He is a Memphis legend, an icon of the rise of Grit and Grind who could very well be a tradeable asset on a team with wings who do not have his personal innate skill set but are indeed capable of playing both ends of the court. A role player with a phenomenal specific skill who appears to need to start to feel fully appreciated and engaged.

Memphis defeats Minnesota. 1-0 for the first time in Memphis Grizzlies history.

Los Angeles, California (November 15th, 2013)

Tony Allen is surprised.

How in the hell is Jodie Meeks doing this? 25 points? 62.5% shooting, 5 made threes? On Mr. 1st Team All-Defense himself? The perimeter shut down player who takes so much pride in wrecking opposing offenses? Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, the list goes on and on of players who have been on the hit list of one Tony Allen.

But Jodie Meeks scoring so well? And it isn't just Meeks over the course of Grizzly history who has given Allen fits; Wesley Matthews? Kevin Martin?  Why are these second- and third-tier wings having such success against Allen and these Grizzlies?

Is it because Tony Allen does not take them seriously? Allen loves to say he shut down the big time players; maybe he just doesn't respect these basic NBA starting level players enough. Or, is it perhaps that TA can't play consistently within scheme? Switches and help defense have been an issue for Tony in the past: over-helping, not trusting rotations, ball watching, and losing track of an off-ball moving defender.

A shut-down defender whose shut-down abilities only appear to work consistently in certain situations against certain players. Memphis escaped LA with a victory, 89-86, but Tony Allen is the only starter with a negative +/- despite not missing a shot, shooting 6/6.

San Antonio, Texas (May 21st, 2013)

Tony Allen is frustrated.

It isn't for a lack of trying. Go to any Memphis Grizzlies game and before the game starts and before the 2nd half, almost always the first player out of the tunnel to work on his jumper is Tony Allen. Form, release, foot placement, you can tell he works on it all. Work ethic is not the issue.

If you go by his college career, it shouldn't be such a chore either. While in college, Allen was a borderline prolific scorer, and before he got to Oklahoma State, in Junior College he shot 61% from the field and 50% from 3 point range on his way to averaging 22 points per game. He has scored the basketball with people defending him before, granted at the Junior College and Division I level.

Why can't he hit these wide open shots now?

San Antonio, as part of their strategy against the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2013 Western Conference Finals, crowds the paint and leaves both Allen and Tayshaun Prince open from range consistently. They're begging TA to force them to guard him. He cannot. In this game, a 93-89 loss in Game 2 of the series, Tony shoots a horrid 2-11 from the floor and through the series Allen shoots 37.5%. It is hard to win close basketball games with poor performances from your stars, but when role players can't make open shots the hole gets even harder to climb out of.

And this is not the only night Allen struggled offensively. He has "Trick or Treat" moments often, making a tremendous play and then seemingly negating it with a blunder like this...

Or like this...

Rough in any language. Allen has had increased offensive productivity at times, better efficiency in some stretches, especially during the playoff push of 2013-2014. It always comes back to a lack of consistency, especially from range. That limits Tony's effectiveness and affects how valuable he is to fans, writers, and others who follow the NBA.

Unless you're most Memphis Grizzlies fans.

Oklahoma City, OK (April 29th, 2014)

Tony Allen is thriving.

No specific scheme to confuse or diffuse him. No need to worry about helping other teammates. One. Specific. Goal. Stop Kevin Durant. These are the moments Allen lives for, a chance to show his worth. People were wrong about him; so what if he can't score? He is going to shut down the best scorer possibly in the history of the NBA.

And damn if he didn't get close. After Game 5, a 100-99 overtime thriller that Memphis wins, Durant is clearly frustrated. Understandably so. His latest stinker, a 10-24 performance, was the latest in a 5 game stretch of below-average offensive play for Durant.

Durant Shooting Games 1-5

Tony Allen was getting in to the head of the eventual MVP. The evidence is not just statistical, it's visual as well.

Tony Allen relentlessly pursues Kevin Durant, like a dog chasing a car who may actually be able to catch it. Tenaciously, TA prevents passes, deflects opportunities, and contests almost every Durant shooting attempt. Over this 5 game span, Durant, who shot 50% during the regular season, shoots 50-125 overall, a below average for most-putrid for him 40% from the field. He also turns the ball over 5 or more times in 3 out of these 5 games. The offensively-challenged Allen (26-52) shoots 10% better than Durant during this stretch.

Durant catches fire in games 6 and 7 of the series, leading the Thunder past Memphis in 7 games. But Allen's worth is never higher to those critics in Memphis and across the country.

For most Grizzlies fans, he is loved just the same as he was before the series.

Charlotte, North Carolina (November 1st, 2014)

Tony Allen is back in his element.

No scheme. No frills. One goal: SHUT. DOWN. KEMBA. WALKER.

The young guard has a flare for the dramatic and has hurt Memphis before, scoring 31 against the Grizzlies last season. In a contest like the Grizzlies were in on this night, every point mattered. Allen's 2014-2015 season is off to an uneven start; despite his obscene 12 steals through 3 games, Allen is not scoring at his career average and currently boasts an 11.23 PER, plenty below average and below the 15.64 he posted last season.

No matter. On this final play, Allen has one assignment, one that he had throughout the night. Stop Kemba Walker.

TA Kemba 1

Allen in the middle of the floor. A high pick will be set by Al Jefferson on TA; this is fine, one of the best help defending bigs in the NBA in Marc Gasol is there to help hedge any Walker drive.

TA Kemba 2

Gasol steps up and helps Allen recover. He gets over the top of the Jefferson pick aggressively, taking a good angle to replace and cut Walker off at the pass.

TA Kemba 3

Walker knows he will not get around Gasol, and Allen recovers nicely. Kemba opts for a fade away jumper; a decent look, but not the highest percentage shot. Walker misses, Grizzlies win. 3-0. Walker finishes the game 1-11.

The water was shut off.


Tony Allen is Chaos.

He is, and isn't, many things. A fighter. A head case. He is tenacious. He is careless. He is passionate and confounding, in some ways selfish and in others selfless. He is terrifying to other teams in that he can destroy offensive game plans, and terrifying to his own team for the same reason. He is terrifying for another reason as well:

He is ultimately the key to how far the Memphis Grizzlies will go this season.

Can he play sound defense against bigger wings all season long? Can his offensive shortcomings be negated by the Courtney Lees, Quincy Pondexters, and Vince Carters of the world? Can Tony Allen start on a championship caliber team?

Answers will come with time and the grind of the NBA season. But in Memphis, Tennessee, the answer is irrelevant to many. Tony Allen is unconditionally loved, a true son of the (We Don't) Bluff City. Maybe he will rise to the occasion, maybe he won't. Maybe he will stop Chris Paul from scoring, maybe he will inexplicably kick him in the face.

Maybe he will blow an assignment, maybe he will miss a wide open lay-up. Maybe he will stop the best players on the court and play within himself offensively.

It isn't about the end result; it's about the journey.

A journey that Memphis and Allen set out on 4 years ago. A journey to relevance, to prove everyone wrong. To show the value in toughness, in tenacity, in heart. It echoed in the spirit of a city that needed something, someone, to rally behind.

Whether the Grizzlies succeed or not in their pursuit of a championship, many Memphians are content to live or die with one of their greatest heroes.

Because when Tony Allen bobs his head and gets hype to "Go Harder", there are thousands upon thousands of Memphians, in their own way, doing the same thing.

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