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Inside the mind of the Grizzlies' Tony Allen

After five years together, the Grizzlies' core is hoping to rise beyond its rough-and-tough identity. AP Photo/Brandon Dill

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The first thing you notice about Tony Allen? His hands.

They possess the strong grip and leathery, calloused texture similar to those of a wrench-clutching auto mechanic. And his long, wiry fingers shoot out like those sharp blades that extend from the Wolverine’s knuckles when he’s angry in those "X-Men" flicks.

Allen, 33, reaches out one hand for a formal handshake and uses the other to pull up an extra chair. One of the NBA’s pre-eminent perimeter defenders -- as he reminds everyone within earshot of an arena or a national television broadcast during this West semifinal series between the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors -- is ready to open up.

“I’m First Team T.A.,” Allen tells ESPN.com, introducing himself first by his All-NBA Defensive team ambitions followed by his initials. “Have a seat.”

Next, you notice the chair he’s offered.

It’s the seat directly next to Allen’s in the Grizzlies’ locker room, which belongs to first-year forward JaMychal Green. And just as the conversation starts, Green approaches from the adjacent shower area. Getting up and giving the seat back to Green seems the logical option.

But …

“Don’t move,” Allen barks in the raspy, soulful voice of a Beale Street blues singer. “You’re my guest. He’s a rookie. He can find somewhere else to do what he’s got to do. Stay there, man. Let’s talk.”

When Allen pulls rank around here, there’s very little pushback. This was the formal invitation into the mind of the league’s most maniacal defender, whose lockdown performance against Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry tied this series and shifted home-court advantage to Memphis entering Game 3 Saturday.

The Grizzlies look to build on Mike Conley’s return (from facial fracture surgery), which sparked the offense, and Allen’s relentless pressure, which spearheaded a defense that stymied Golden State in Memphis' 97-90 win on Tuesday. Conley quietly addresses how Memphis draws motivation from often being overlooked and underrated among the NBA’s title contenders. But Allen doesn’t shy away from a more demonstrative approach as he looks to enhance his legacy as one of the era’s best defensive specialists.

“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.”

Wagging his index finger and shouting “first team” after big plays, Allen had four steals and forced players he directly defended to miss 9 of 11 shots in Game 2. For the series, including Golden State’s 101-86 Game 1 win, Curry and Thompson have shot just 42.6 percent and are 9-for-30 on 3-point attempts.

“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.”

"When they talk about the Bruce Bowens, Dennis Rodmans and Michael Coopers, I want them to remember my name, too. I'm not just playing this game to be average. I want to be elite." Tony Allen

Memphis is expecting Golden State to make adjustments, but Allen is comfortable with the formula.

“Do your work early, compete from tipoff,” Allen said. “Be physical, play without fouling, make every shot tough, and don’t get discouraged. If you’ve got teammates willing to help, you’ve got the recipe.”

To the Grizzlies, their defensive execution against the league’s most lethal backcourt isn't a fluke. Allen, especially, has been waiting for another shot at the Warriors for weeks. Thompson torched Memphis in the regular season, when he averaged 30.7 points and shot 75 percent from 3-point range as the Warriors won two of the three meetings. Those performances left Allen bitter. He suffered a hamstring injury in a 107-84 home loss to the Warriors on March 27 and missed the last nine games of the season, including Thompson’s 42-point effort against Memphis on April 13.

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.”

When Allen gets locked in on an individual opponent, consider it a vice grip. Shaking free is rarely an option. He’s been specializing in these assignments since 2008, when he broke through as a member of the Celtics rotation. He was assigned to the defensive platoon against Kobe Bryant during the Celtics' NBA Finals victory over the Lakers in '08. Two years later, Allen was deployed with Paul Pierce to help contain LeBron James in a series win that brought a bitter end to James’ first stint in Cleveland.

And three times in his first four seasons with Memphis, Allen was tasked with hounding Kevin Durant in the playoffs. Along the way, he finished fifth in defensive player of the year voting in 2013 and was named to three consecutive All-NBA Defensive Teams, including first-team selections in 2012 and 2013. A broken hand limited Allen to 55 games last season, and he believes that led to slipping off the radar of elite perimeter defenders. Allen figured he restored his reputation in a seven-game series against OKC.

“By me missing all those games, I thought the writers kind of overlooked me,” Allen said of his streak of consecutive All-Defensive team nods ending last season. “I thought I was playing at a high level, but I got snubbed and I speak that loudly. And that was my whole focus coming into this year.”

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.

Driven to prove that last season wasn’t the start of a decline because of his age, Allen repeatedly passed by the scorer’s table after blocks and steals to seek out media members and drop “first team” references. It’s became equal parts personal sales pitch and rallying cry shared by fans at FedEx Forum.

Why does the distinction mean so much at this stage of his career?

“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.”

Facing an MVP candidate each week provided even more incentive for Allen, who saw a steady stream of assignments against Curry, Thompson, LeBron, Harden and Russell Westbrook. Before the award was announced for Curry, Allen said Harden would have been his choice for MVP. Although Allen held Harden to a season-low six points on 1-for-8 shooting in a Nov. 11 blowout win over Houston, Allen struggled in later games -- like everyone else in the league -- at keeping Harden off the foul line.

“He’s a free throw line machine,” Allen said. “I haven’t really figured him out yet because he’s so crafty. But I did hold him under his average early in the year when he was on fire. He left here with six points.”

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.”

Allen developed a knack for anticipating play calls before the opposing team’s own players know the play.

“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.”

These are the voices and schemes running through Allen’s head during games. Sometimes, it causes him to drift off into his own world during timeouts. He wanders along the bench or strays back onto the court. In Game 1 against the Warriors, this was the reason he strolled aimlessly into the middle of a youth dance group’s performance on the court during a break in play at Oracle Arena.

By the time Allen realized what he had done, he was already the biggest villain in the series and was booed mercilessly by Warriors fans through the first two games at Golden State.

“Once I snapped back, I was like, ‘Aw, man,’” Allen said. “I apologized to those kids, man.”

But Allen doesn’t apologize for who he is. That’s been the case all his life, even times when he took on someone else’s identity to help stay out of trouble back in high school. Veteran NBA guard Will Bynum, who grew up in Chicago with Allen and was a high school teammate, still laughs at how it all went down.

Allen kept himself eligible during basketball seasons as a standout at Crane Tech on Chicago’s west side. But after the season ended, it was a challenge to maintain focus and keep those grades up to par.

“I moved in with him to make sure he was going to class,” Bynum said of Allen’s junior season in high school. “So during the offseason, to keep him out of trouble, they had him playing football. The thing is, he got real good in football and started scoring touchdowns. But he was ineligible. So they put his name down as Antonio Brown, so he could play. He had, like, six touchdowns in a game and was in the newspaper. And all these college coaches would come to our school, like, ‘Who is this 6-4 tight end?’ At some point, he had to stop playing because he was scoring too much and getting too much attention.”

Allen emerged as a world-class athlete as he detoured through two junior colleges and landed at Oklahoma State under Eddie Sutton. Allen was Big 12 Player of the Year as a senior, graduated with a degree in education, and was a late first-round pick by Boston in 2004. For nearly a dozen years, Allen has gone about his work meticulously. Rivers' staff branded him with structure. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett baptized him by fire in years of brutally tough practice skirmishes.

It ingrained a level of mental toughness and passion that sometimes borders on relative insanity. Allen still gets into heated exchanges with coaches and teammates. One incident after the All-Star break escalated into an altercation with backup guard Nick Calathes and an argument with a staff assistant.

"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." Tony Allen

That friction and feistiness are part of the total First Team T.A. package.

“Ask any coach, would you like to have a Tony Allen on your team? Where do I sign up?” NBA analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy said in an ESPN radio interview Friday. “If [Allen] had a normal outlook on things, he probably wouldn’t be in the league. Hey, look, you can’t have all milk drinkers on your team. You need some knife fighters. And Tony Allen is a knife fighter.”

That’s probably the second-best thing someone could call Allen.

“I ain’t fighting for this reputation; I’m not politicking for this. This is who I am. You feel me?” Allen preaches. “When I come in this locker room, I’m not trying to do Mike Conley’s job. I ain’t trying to do Zach Randolph’s job. I’m not trying to do Marc’s job. I’m not trying to shoot 3s like Courtney Lee. I’m not trying to fly in the air like Jeff Green. If I score, that’s a bonus. I’m all about being Tony Allen.”

Memphis -- the town and the team -- has embraced him for who he is.

Gasol is the franchise player, but Allen is the fan favorite on billboards. Randolph is the team’s muscle, but they call Allen the Grindfather. Conley runs the show, but Allen drives the emotion. They all know it. Everyone identifies with Allen in Memphis. He personifies the region’s blue-collar, no-bluff mantra.

“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.”