The first warning sign that the Golden State Warriors are about to go on a momentous, game-shifting run always comes from the crowd. When the Warriors are at home, Oracle Arena has perfected a breathless, anticipatory gasp the moment Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson pulls up for a three-pointer that will change the complexion of the evening.
You know it when you hear it. It happened on Tuesday night in Oakland, with the Warriors improbably trailing the Memphis Grizzlies by nine points with just over four minutes remaining. Curry pumped faked as a defender flew by, squared his feet and the crowd readied itself for an explosion as ball left his hands. This time, he shot wide right.
That defender was Tony Allen. It was hard to tell in the moment, but Allen forced the miss even without truly challenging the shot. As he sailed past Curry, Allen stuck out his left hand and covered Curry's eyes.
It was the type of play that won't show up in the box score after Memphis' 97-90 victory, but it was the perfect personification of Allen's bizarre genius: effective, unconventional and hilarious all at the same time.
Golden State only lost at home twice during the regular season, and hadn't done so since the Bulls beat them in January. This night was meant to be a celebration of everything the Warriors have blossomed into this season, with Curry receiving the MVP award before the game and a hyped crowd doing all it could to show its support. Unfortunately for the home team, Allen had different plans.
Allen was a one-man wrecking crew, blanketing Thompson, playing the passing lines and acting as the emotional leader he's been since coming to Memphis in 2010. Thompson finished the night 5-of-16 (and 1-of-6 from three) for 13 points. Curry couldn't get going either, with Allen and returning hero Mike Conley pestering the MVP throughout the night.
Warriors are 0-of-7 when Tony Allen is the primary defender, including 0-5 by Klay Thompson— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 6, 2015
That stat came during the middle of the second half, but Allen's defensive imprint on the night never wavered. It's easy to chalk this up to a cold shooting game for Golden State -- as a team, it finished just 6-of-26 from deep -- but anyone watching sensed it was something much more than that.
This was the Grizzlies getting back to their roots as they welcomed back Conley, with Allen as the braggadocious ringleader. In years past, we've seen Allen give Kevin Durant hell for a seven-game series even with a six-inch deficit in height and we've seen him act as a thorn in the Clippers' side. This was another game for his legend, a raw, unrelenting performance to halt what many assumed might be a sweep for Golden State.
Allen wore a microphone for TNT throughout the game, which was about as delightful as you might imagine. He called Conley "One-eyed Charlie" and barked at Golden State all evening. During one sequence in the second half, he stripped Thompson while lying down and shouted "First-team all-defense!" again and again as the Grizzlies ran the other way for a transition bucket.
It's moments like that one that make Allen such a compelling original among his NBA peers. In the era of spacing, he's the undersized shooting guard who can't shoot. He's liable to go and straight up air-ball a layup. He'll miss four shots on one play. He can also impose his will on a playoff game against the best team in basketball.
In a strange way, Allen's flaws only make him more endearing. At his best, he's an entertainer and a showman more than a wing defender. He's the beating heart of Memphis' Southern Style defensive intensity even if he's far from their most vital player. It feels safe to say this league will never see another player quite like him.
Allen only finished the night with nine points, four rebounds and four steals, but anyone watching knew this night belonged to him. The Oracle will have other opportunities to buzz over Curry's wizardry. In Game 2, Tony Allen stopped the best team in the NBA cold in its tracks.
SB Nation presents: As the playoffs intensify, so do the fights