Tony Allen at heart of 'Grit & Grind'

Tony Allen just said it one night, and everyone knew exactly what he meant.

Everyone who has ever played with or against him. Everyone in the city of Memphis who now adores him.

Everyone, or anyone really, who understands that not everybody gets to be a big, bright star, but there can be just as much glory in fighting to hold on to every inch of the place in the world that is yours.

"All heart," Allen said after the 2011 game that transformed his career with the Grizzlies. "Grit. Grind."

They were the first words that popped into his head after he led Memphis to an improbable win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Feb. 8, 2011, with 27 points, 5 steals and 3 blocks.

Allen was in the game only because Rudy Gay was injured and O.J. Mayo was suspended. But who cares about the details now. What's important is that he had been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long time, and when it came, there was no way it was getting by him.

"I never pointed fingers, never pouted, never blamed nobody," Allen said. "[General manager] Chris Wallace, that's my homeboy. He was always in my ear, telling me my time would come. And my time came."

He might try too hard. He might make one of those lovable plays where he misses three shots in a row, grabs all three offensive rebounds, turns the ball over, dives on the floor to get it back, gets blocked from behind and eventually gets fouled and sinks two free throws.

But whatever happens, he is leaving every ounce of himself on the floor.

"All heart. Grit. Grind."

It was his story and his truth, and it has become the de facto motto for the Grizzlies' brand of no-frills, hard-nosed basketball.

But it was also Memphis'.

"The city is something similar," Allen said. "Nothing was really given to the city. People are always overlooking the city too. I mean, nobody wants to come vacay in Memphis, you know what I'm saying?"

Well, blues enthusiasts, barbecue gourmands and Graceland pilgrims aside, anyway.

"I think people understand our struggles," Allen said. "They know everything wasn't peaches and cream starting out. But we made our way, and we were able to overcome a lot of things."

For Allen, that list is long. He was kicked out of two junior colleges before finding a home at Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Ill., and then a spot with Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State.

After the Celtics drafted him in 2004, he was Paul Pierce's backup in Boston when he wasn't injured, and later Ray Allen's and Rajon Rondo's. That first season in Memphis, after he joined the Grizzlies as a free agent in 2010, he was buried behind Mayo, Gay and Xavier Henry.

But the journey taught him something. Or rather, it revealed something to him.

"I was always a scorer at every level of my career, but when I got to the league, I was playing behind Paul Pierce and he was the ultimate scorer, so if I was going to play, I had to do the things he wasn't doing," Allen said. "He wasn't going to the offensive glass that hard. He wasn't defending the best player. He wasn't diving for loose balls.


Everybody in this town has had to work for everything they've had in their life. Nobody's offered silver spoons. It's just kind of about grinding it out.

"-- Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley

"Doc Rivers picked up on it, he liked it, he started me. He liked how hard I worked. I took that same mentality to Memphis, and here we are now."

What Allen is now is arguably the best on-ball defender in the league. He can guard anyone from Chris Paul to Kobe Bryant to Kevin Durant.

In the Western Conference semifinals, Durant shot just 31.6 percent from the field when he was defended by Allen. The Grizzlies would have put him on Durant full time if Allen were able to play his style of defense without fouling out. So instead Tayshaun Prince handled Durant for the majority of the first three quarters -- Durant shot 49.1 percent with Prince on him -- until Allen was ready for the fourth-quarter handoff.

He is holding opponents to 34.7 percent shooting in the playoffs, according to Synergy Sports. In the regular season, opponents shot 33.4 percent when defended by Allen, fourth best among 331 players with at least 200 individual defensive plays.

He finished fifth in the voting for NBA Defensive Player of the Year, the only player under 6-foot-6 to finish in the top 10. And he was named to the All-Defensive first team for the second consecutive year.

"I study the game a lot," he said, explaining his craft. "And once you watch a lot of clips and rewind a lot of film, you look at a lot of teams' offense -- they only running their offense from three angles of the court. There's the side pick-and-roll, the middle pick-and-roll or the other side of the court pick-and-roll. It's from these three angles. Everything else is an [isolation play].

"You watch so much film you get to understanding the game and how individual guys play. It starts coming natural. Instinct on the court takes over, you know what I mean?"

Instinct. All heart. Grit. Grind.

Yes, everyone in Memphis knows what Allen means. Point guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol are the stars of the Grizzlies, the guys paid to lead on and off the court. They are respected and admired.

But this blue-collar town on the muddy banks of the Mississippi River reserves a special place in its heart for Allen and burly power forward Zach Randolph.

"Zach and Tony, they're a reflection of the city," Conley said recently. "Everybody in this town has had to work for everything they've had in their life. Nobody's offered silver spoons. It's just kind of about grinding it out.

"That's kind of the motto around here. Tony's perfect for that. Zach. All of us who've had to work our way up. They just love that. They feel like they can relate to the players.

"It gives people hope of what can happen if you work hard."

You feel that hope around town these days. It's in the air. You also feel the worry that this happy story might not end well after all.

Conley said he didn't dare turn on the radio or television after the Grizzlies dropped the first two games of their first-round series against the Clippers.

"We knew coming back from L.A. that this city was going to be behind us," Conley said. "But we also knew that we needed to win for them.

"We feel like we're an extension of the city and the things we do directly affect the city. We like to say we're built for it. That's what we always tell each other."

The Grizzlies are right back in that familiar underdog role after dropping the first two games of the Western Conference finals to the San Antonio Spurs heading into Saturday's Game 3.

It's a lot to put on a basketball team. But so far it has seemed to fuel the Grizzlies, not stifle them.

All heart. Grit. Grind.

The words have become all sorts of things to all sorts of people connected to Allen and the Grizzlies. Words to live by, or at least try to.

It's all Allen is thinking about now. His impending free agency feels a million years away.

"I don't even understand the business side," Allen said. "When July hits, somebody is going to have to sit me down and explain it. All I know is I'm a Grizzly and I believe I'm going to be a Grizzly when it's over with.

"I bleed blue. I think they going to keep me. But if they don't, I understand.

"I don't even think about it now. I just play. I love being in Memphis. I love the city. Hopefully I stay here. It feels like home."