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Grayson Allen is happy, and that's good news for Duke

DURHAM, N.C. -- He has sat in this spot, in this locker room, on this chair and cried before the cameras, his embarrassment spilling out in gut-wrenching real time.

And so as Grayson Allen pulled up the same chair in the same spot in the same locker room following his best game in months -- in what just so happened to be the biggest game of Duke’s season -- the junior wasn’t terribly interested in revisiting history, or even going into a deep dissection of his emotions.

He was happy.

And happy was good enough.

"It’s been a lot," Allen told ESPN.com, pausing for a beat before continuing. "But it feels good to be here at the moment I’m at right now. I’m not looking back. I’m living in the present."

The present looks a lot brighter for the Blue Devils in large part because the world has gone from black and white to technicolor for their star-crossed star.

Allen scored a team-high 25 points, including a 3-point dagger with a little more than a minute left to lift the Blue Devils to a 86-78 win against North Carolina on Thursday in a game that has far greater implications for Duke than merely a win against its rival.

Once the prohibitive favorite to win a national title, the Blue Devils instead have spent the bulk of this season trying to shake their own bad karma. An unexpected preseason knee surgery for top freshman Harry Giles uncorked a keg of misery for Duke, injuries spreading across almost the entire team, right down to the head coach.

But the big cloud hovered, of course, over Allen. Suspended and stripped of his captaincy for tripping a third opponent, he has become the touchstone of the season, his every move played over and over like college basketball’s Zapruder film.

The soap opera made for good TV and social media debate -- Does he have a competitive disorder, if there is such a thing? Should Mike Krzyzewski have allowed him to return so quickly? Did he push an assistant from another team? Did he purposely cut through an opposing huddle? -- but on a far more basic level, it also has been a large part of Duke’s basketball struggles.

Put simply: The Blue Devils need Grayson Allen to be Grayson Allen if they’re going to be good.

And that’s Grayson Allen, the fiery, emotional player who walks right up to the line of tempestuousness.

So long as he doesn’t cross it.

He toed just up to the edge of it against North Carolina -- his frustration simmering beneath the surface after he was whistled for his fourth foul on a questionable call -- but allowed his classmates with the painted chests to vent his fury instead of doing it himself.

He played with emotion. He did not play emotionally.

"Grayson had an amazing game," Krzyzewski said. "The last few ballgames he’s played so darned well."

The emergence of Luke Kennard has all but saved Duke from disaster, and Amile Jefferson might, as the Blue Devils’ glue guy, be the most important person, according to Krzyzewski. But Allen is the difference between this team realizing its October potential and falling short. He is the best player in uniform, the most reliable offensive threat, a guy who was a national player of the year candidate before all of the hullabaloo for a reason.

After losing three of four, Duke has won four in a row, a streak that has coincided with the best stretch of Allen’s season. He is averaging 21.5 points per game on 26-of-54 shooting, and has pulled in 20 rebounds and dished out 18 assists.

Three different Tar Heels tried to stop Allen -- Theo Pinson, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson. None could do it. He scored five against Pinson, six against Berry and nine against Jackson … and five more against everyone else for good measure.

If statisticians had computed a plus-minus for Thursday's game, he would have finished on the high side of plus. When he was in the game, the team played more cohesively, as if they could collectively exhale because their best player was on the floor.

Allen went to the bench, whistled for his fourth foul with 8 minutes, 35 seconds left. The score was tied at 68-68. He came back in with 4:50 left. By the time he fouled out with 1:02 to play, the Blue Devils led by five.

That’s no more a coincidence than Duke’s recent resurgence walking in lockstep with Allen’s.

Allen said there wasn’t a moment that everything seemed to fall into place, or a time that he stopped worrying about everything that was being said, tweeted or written about him. He simply decided that with a few months left in perhaps his final college basketball season, he wasn’t going to worry anymore.

"I’m having fun," he said.

Asked if the entire season has been fun, he laughed.

"I’m not interested in a tell-all right now but, uh, no," he said.

He talked a lot about how he felt he had rediscovered his confidence, a stunning admission for a kid who never lacked certainty on the court. Remember, Allen’s coming-out party came in nothing less than Duke’s 2015 national championship game, when he came off the bench to score 16, an out-of-nowhere stampede of offense that gave the Blue Devils the emotional jolt it needed to beat Wisconsin.

But mostly he talked about rediscovering his joy. Stuck on the bench for the final hair-raising minute of the game, Allen looked more like a Cameron Crazy than an All-American, living and dying with each shot. He alternatively clutched a towel to his mouth, stomped his feet, smacked the floor, punched his fist into the air and screamed.

And when it was over, when Frank Jackson sealed the victory with two free throws to put Duke up six, he high-fived Krzyzewski before wrapping his coach in a bear hug.

"It’s not about whether the shot is falling or not," he said. "It was about playing for this team and nothing else. It’s as simple as that. I just want to play the game I love, and I’m loving the way it’s going right now. That’s how I grew up feeling, just loving to compete and it feels good just to do that."

Happy is good enough for Allen.

And it’s great for Duke.