As Kevin Durant rose from the bench to reenter Monday night’s game midway through the second quarter, Memphis coach Dave Joerger took a gander down the scorer’s table and saw the superstar forward coming right at him.
So immediately, Joerger flipped around and made his counter move, whistling for the defensive stopper who has turned this first-round series on its head.
For the past two games and the next two weeks, wherever Kevin Durant goes, so does Tony Allen. Durant reentered, so did Allen. Durant went to the post, there followed Allen. Durant tried to free himself with a variety of screens all over the court, Allen wouldn’t let him.
It’s a ferocious, physical, unrelenting style that places Allen among the very best perimeter defenders in the game today. And it’s the kind of unique tactics that, in some ways, serve as Kevin Durant’s kryptonite.
As almost any good defender will say, you can’t stop Durant, you just have to make him work hard for it. He’ll get his numbers, just try to force him to do it in a difficult, inefficient and tiring way.
Through two games, Allen has done that perfectly, blowing up plays, bothering Durant and throwing the Thunder offense completely out of kilter.
Why has he been so effective? Let’s take a look in this week’s edition of the film room.
Bad entry passes
Some of it has been on Durant, but some of it has also been on his occasionally careless teammates. Allen, who doesn’t start for some confusing reason, entered midway through the first quarter on Monday night already wearing that ‘I’ve had 10 cups of coffee since the opening tip’ look. And because he is undersized, Durant took him to the post. But Allen fronted and baited the Thunder point guards into sloppy turnovers. Take a look — great post defense by Allen, bad passes by Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson
But some of the blame on those unsuccessful mid-post feeds fall to Durant. He’s gotta be more physical with Allen, has to bully his way around a bit and ensure that he catches the ball. KD is 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and the athleticism of a guard. Use that to your advantage.
Below is a clip of a mid-post feed that finally got to Durant. KD settles for a 15-foot jumper — not a terrible shot — but it’s a great contest by Allen, forcing a miss:
Ball denial disrupting offense
The biggest thing that makes Allen so successful is his crazy, frantic activity. It’s similar to an offensive player like Westbrook. Because Westbrook is so quick-twitch and high-energy, you can’t know where he’s going because he doesn’t even know where he’s going. And it plays to his advantage. It’s the same with Allen on defense. He’s so high-energy and unpredictable that you never know when he’ll fly into a passing lane or come for a weak-side steal. It clearly disrupts the offense. Look at his ball denial here, forcing a long Serge Ibaka missed jumper:
On this next play, he denies Durant the ball in the spot he wants, forces a risky over-the-top pass and then plays good physical defense on a KD drive. The result is an off-balance miss and rebound secured by, who else, Tony Allen:
The problem with some good, but not great, perimeter defenders is that they pick and choose their spots to be aggressive. They conserve energy, sometimes for the offensive end. That’s not an issue with Allen. He’s got a bottomless tank of energy and doesn’t seem too concerned about his offensive game (although it’s effective in random ways). And because of that never-ending defensive aggression, he can wear offensive players out by the end of the game. Check out this next play, with less than a minute left in regulation and the Thunder down two. Typically a time you’d figure Durant would demand the ball. But Allen’s tenacious ball denial has clearly taken its toll on KD. And when he sticks to him way out past the 3-point line, a frustrated Durant just waves to Westbrook with a “Eh, I’m tired, you make a play” look. Westbrook misses a long, contested three.
Here’s some more great examples of Durant’s frustration. Trying to use Allen’s physical play against him, Durant attempts to bait the refs into a pair of fouls beyond the 3-point line. But both times, Allen plays solid, straight-up defense and forces an errant miss and late-game steal:
Despite Allen’s success, there are still ways Durant can exploit that matchup. The size advantage is probably the biggest one. Allen is only 6-foot-4, more than half a foot shorter than Durant. So he can shoot over him and has good enough handles to take it to the rim and not be concerned about getting his shot blocked. Memphis’ bigs are solid team defenders, but not great rim protectors. Here’s an example of Durant forcing the issue, bulldozing his way to the rim and causing an obvious shooting foul on the undersized Allen
And here’s another example of Durant taking advantage of the size mismatch and his rare offensive fluidity, bullying through Allen, toasting him with a spin move and dropping in an easy, uncontested 10-footer:
Other ways to score on him
The Thunder also had some success on Monday night by giving Durant a screen at the top of the key. If the OKC bigs set a good enough screen to temporarily free him from Allen, he’s talented enough to exploit everyone else on the Grizzlies defense. Here’s a solid screen by Nick Collison, leaving Allen on the trail and Durant an open lane to drive past Marc Gasol and float in two points:
And here, late in the game, is an absolute brick wall pick set by Kendrick Perkins. Zach Randolph stays a little too far off, understandably unconcerned about a Perkins pop, but is late to react and KD has a wide-open three:
So there are certainly ways to exploit Allen and get Durant the kind of looks he has thrived off all season. But the Grizzlies game-changing menace makes it harder than anyone else in the league. One of Allen’s most underrated defensive skills is his unique ability to navigate through screens. It allows him to surprise with his quickness and blow-up plays, like this example below:
Plus, he’s a sneaky help-side defender who impacts the game in so many ways. Here is one of his four steals on Monday night:
The main reason Oklahoma City lost to Memphis in last season’s playoffs was because Russell Westbrook missed the series. There’s no denying that. But maybe the biggest reason OKC cruised past the Grizzlies 3-1 in this year’s head-to-head series was because Tony Allen was only able to play a total of 17 minutes, missing three of the games due to injury.
His defensive play is that impactful. We got the greatest example of that on Monday night.