Just recently, the Memphis Grizzlies were a little more than an hour away from tipoff against the Charlotte Bobcats.
In what was a mostly empty locker room, Grizzlies shooting guard Tony Allen — who’s usually the first player to suit up before a game – is sitting in front of his locker, his music blasting as he uttered the lyrics to one of Memphis rapper Yo Gotti’s hits.
“Man, I’m feeling Memphis today,” Allen said with a smile.
A nine-year NBA veteran, Allen doesn’t shy away from the notion that he has absorbed a fond admiration for Memphis since he relocated to the Bluff City from Boston following the 2009-10 season.
For starters, Allen is deemed the mastermind behind the “Grit Grind” catchphrase he coined after holding Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant in check during a February 2011 game. Three years removed from having convinced Memphians to embrace the “Grit Grind” persona that has become the franchise’s identity since his arrival to the team, Allen also continues to demonstrate the No-I-In-Team concept.
What’s mostly intriguing for a Grizzlies team that has re-established itself as a playoff contender with a 39-27 mark heading into Wednesday night’s game against the Utah Jazz in FedExForum is that the 32-year-old Allen has proven to display a winning attitude while harboring an altered role, one he hasn’t witnessed since he joined the team.
Having returned February 21 from a hand injury that sidelined him 21 games, Allen has been playing backup to fellow veteran Courtney Lee, who was signed by the Grizzlies Jan. 7 as part of a three-team deal.
Drafted with the 22nd overall pick in 2008, Lee has been efficient in his brief time with Memphis, averaging 12.2 points per game in 31 consecutive starts.
“It was kind of strange simply because he wasn’t playing in Boston and then came here and fit right in so well,” Allen said of Lee, who is now with his fifth NBA team. “You know, when you’re playing alongside Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol anybody can get in position and block because those guys are the horses and they pass so well and they can draw so much attention on you. He’s been playing very well and we’re going to need him to do that for the rest of the year. He’s been battled-tested. He has playoff experience. He’s a seasoned vet and a great addition for us.”
Since his return from injury, Allen has been his usual reliable self. He is one of five Grizzlies who average double figures in scoring (10.2 points) and his 1.68 steals per game is best on the team. As the self-proclaimed “Grindfather” acknowledges, his reserve role isn’t as vital as his ability to aid a Memphis team that boasts postseason aspirations.
“It’s been an adjustment but I’m used to adapting coming from how I started here.” said Allen, who was labeled the best perimeter defender in a survey among NBA GMs two years ago. “I’ve been in this position before.”
As far as the former Oklahoma State star is concerned, he feels it is best if Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger doesn’t fix something that’s not broken.
“All I’ve got to do is go out here and do what’s best for the team and that’s give every minute to this organization, dedicate my body to the weight room, work on my craft, and help us win games,” Allen said. “It really don’t matter if I’m coming off the bench, passing out water, giving high fives…it don’t matter. I’m having fun.”
With what appears to be a healthy unit than the one that struggled mightily the first two months of the season, it’s safe to assume the Grizzlies have remodeled themselves as a resilient, balanced unit even with arguably their best defensive player occupying a reserve role.
“He’s been great,” Joerger said of Allen. “He’s been active and we’re playing him a lot of minutes. I think we’re a little effective picking the matchups we want him to play and he’s done a great job of wrecking stuff and taking people out of their offense.”
Currently, Memphis, 9-5 since the All-Star break, is eighth in the Western Conference standings, meaning if the regular season the ended today, the Grizz would clinch a playoff berth for a fourth consecutive year.
Not so fast, Allen cautions.
“We’re still at the bottom,” he said. “We still haven’t done nothing. We’re in (eighth) place. We haven’t done nothing. We just played good for a month. We don’t get far playing good in a month. We’ve got to do that throughout the year. So right now, we’re at the bottom and that’s the focus, to get back into those playoffs and getting back to where we was last year and that’s the Western Conference Finals.”
Following Wednesday’s shootaround in FedExForum, Utah Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said because Allen has adjusted comfortably to his unfamiliar role, the Grizzlies could potentially be a tough out in the postseason just as they were a year ago.
“He’s still Tony Allen,” Corbin said. “I know older guys in the league want to start, but he’s been effective for his team. He plays the same minutes in the rotation and when he comes in, he still has the edge. He’s a good defensive player and (the Grizzlies) are good as a result of his play.”
Let alone his No-I-In-Team concept.
“I’m just thankful…God put me in situation to provide for my family,” said Allen who, last summer, signed a multi-year deal with the Grizzlies and then married to his longtime girlfriend, Desiree Rodriguez, days later. “ I just came back and I said, ‘Let me get in where I fit in.’ I don’t have no reason to hold my head down about nothing…just go out here and give 110 percent and play every game like it’s my last.”
New, unfamiliar role and all.