Eddie Sutton is like a lot of orange-clad Oklahomans this week, torn between an Oklahoma State hoops standout and a beloved professional team.
“Oh, I’m a big Thunder fan,” Sutton says.
But he’s also a mentor and good friend to Memphis guard Tony Allen.
“It’s like, I want the Thunder to win, but I want Tony to have a good game,” Sutton explained. “Sometimes that kinda puts you in a strange position.”
The difference, though, between Sutton and some other split-allegiance Thunder fans is that the coach had a leading hand in creating the monster that’s now terrorizing the streets of downtown OKC and the nightmares of its superstar.
At Oklahoma State, Sutton transformed Allen from an energetic athlete to a defensive savant, shuttling him into the NBA as a ready-made stopper.
And 10 years later, his rare defensive skills and impact have never been more apparent – or appreciated – than in the first two games of Memphis’ first-round playoff series with the Thunder.
Allen took over on Monday night, bothering Kevin Durant despite a 7-inch size disadvantage and throwing the Thunder’s offense completely out of kilter. His activity and disruption served as the main reason this series is heading back to Memphis tied 1-1.
“He’s just good,” Durant said.
Now, instead of the typical in-series adjustment to combat a big-time scorer, the Thunder must find a way to counter the tactics of a premier perimeter stopper.
“We have to do a better job at getting their hands off him,” Scott Brooks said postgame, before explaining it further on Tuesday: “We’ve always been a great screen-setting team, and that’s how you get guys’ hands off of you.”
Brooks’ logic is correct. Two of the Thunder’s most effective plays on Tuesday came because of bruising picks. Both times, Durant had the ball at the top of the key with the floor spread. The first time, Nick Collison took Allen out of the play and freed Durant for a drive and easy floater over Marc Gasol. The next, Kendrick Perkins flattened Allen and opened up Durant for an uncontested late-game 3-pointer.
But the problem is, that’s rare with Allen. He’s probably the best in the league at dodging screens and slithering through cracks to make sure he stays connected to his man.
“One thing about it is, he don’t want the guy to catch the ball,” Perkins said of Allen, his former teammate in Boston. “He gonna deny, deny, deny. But once you catch the ball, you can go to work on him.”
And that opens up another potentially appealing way for the Thunder to attack him.
Durant is taller and longer than the 6-foot-4 Allen, meaning the post seems like an ideal place to plant him. But when the Thunder tried that in Game 2, it mostly led to problems. Two terrible entry passes resulted in Allen steals, and a few other times, Durant failed to establish his position deep enough.
“He’s gotta set up shop lower,” Perkins explained.
In the first two games, Durant got his numbers – 69 points and 11 assists – but it came in an inefficient and tiring way. He has gone 10-of-18 against everyone else but only 9-of-25 against Allen, according to ESPN.
“It’s not like I’m getting totally locked down,” a surly Durant said, growing more agitated with each Allen question. “It’s not like I’ve been nonexistent. I don’t know what you guys have been watching.”
But such is the life for a soon-to-be MVP. Because of the ridiculously efficient standards he created throughout the season, that kind of dip has an adverse effect on one of the league’s best offenses.
The reason why Durant is so good is because he rarely needs many shots to put up 30-plus points. But in the first two games, he’s needed 53 for his 69 points – solid by NBA standards, but below average in KD’s ridiculous realm. Plus, the simple task of getting him the ball in the halfcourt has led to turnover issues and shortened shot clocks.
And much of that is because of Tony Allen – a problem that Eddie Sutton helped create and his favorite NBA team must now solve.