BROOKLYN — The story of Thursday afternoon’s ACC semifinal between fifth-seeded Duke and fourth-seeded Louisville is going to be Grayson Allen.
Allen — the Preseason National Player of the Year who has simultaneously been the most scrutinized player in college basketball, one of the biggest disappointments in the sport and a guy who is as banged up physically as he’s been in the media this year — broke out of a month-long slump in emphatic fashion. He scored 18 points in 28 minutes off the bench as the Blue Devils erased a 12-point deficit in the final 13 minutes to knock off Louisville, 81-77.
Over the course of the previous eight games, Allen had averaged 6.9 points and shot 26 percent from the floor as he battled an ankle injury that kept him out for a game and a lack of confidence that sent him to the bench. It came to a head on Wednesday, as Duke was able to beat Clemson despite the fact that Allen contributed no points and one technical foul in just 12 minutes. As a team, the Blue Devils were just 5-3 in those eight games.
“He wasn’t ready to play as well last night,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Thursday’s win. “Look, I love Grayson. Grayson, I got his back all the time. And everyone in our program has his back all the time. It’s just, the public eye on our program is a blessing and can be a curse. So we have to be able to deal with all of it.”
The game changed during a 24-9 run midway through the second half, one that turned a 61-49 deficit into a 73-70 lead for the Blue Devils. That run was sparked by three straight threes that Luke Kennard, who scored 16 of his 24 points in the final 13 minutes, made. But during that stretch, Allen and Louisville sub David Levitch got into a minor altercation. On one possession, Levitch was whistled for two fouls for crowding Allen, the latter of which came as Allen shot a three-pointer. Allen his all three of his free throws, cutting the Louisville lead to three.
Coach K pulled Allen from the game after that sequence and proceeded to give him a hug while driving home his happiness with the effort by enthusiastically smacking Allen on the butt.
“I believe in him. I love him,” Coach K said. “And I thought what he did today was sensational. I loved it. I loved it. He was himself today.”
The Duke team let him know, Kennard said, that on Wednesday, “he wasn’t himself.” He didn’t play the way they knew he could play. He didn’t do the things he’s capable of doing. Everyone saw it, and his teammates made sure to let him know about it.
“There’s no need to coddle him because he doesn’t need it,” senior Matt Jones said. “It’s basketball. You have your ups and you have your downs. G knows everyone in this locker room has his back.”
That’s the narrative that you’re going to get on Thursday, that Allen’s back and healthy and confident, just in time for the Blue Devils to square off with North Carolina in the semifinals of the ACC tournament on Friday night.
In the Barclays Center.
On national television.
I’ll admit, I’m extremely fired up for that game. If that’s the narrative, it’s a damn good one.
But it’s not the reason that Duke made their comeback on Thursday against Louisville.
That can truthfully be credited to two things: Kennard’s takeover and Duke’s 2-3 zone, which caught Louisville completely off-guard. The zone was thrown on with Duke down 12, and it totally changed the rhythm of the game.
“Any port in a storm, so to speak,” Coach K said. “We could not stop them in transition in man. And they missed some shots. It’s not like we played a great zone, but it changed a little the tempo.”
That change in tempo was all the difference. Instead of Louisville getting stops and easy points in transition, they were settling for threes and trying to drive against a packed-in zone defense that was designed to dare the three-point deficient Cardinals from firing away.
“Coach had that in his back pocket,” Jones said. “We just got competitors and we want to win. We don’t work on it in practice.”
That surge coincided with Kennard’s game-changing trio of threes. A couple of possessions before Louisville took their biggest lead of the game, Kennard, who missed seven of his first ten shots from the floor, threw up three bricks from beyond the arc on the same possessions. He made the next four shots he attempted, three of which came from beyond the arc, and that’s what launched the run and the comeback.
Getting Grayson Allen right was huge for the Blue Devils. Their ceiling is significantly lower when he’s not playing well, and he hadn’t played well since going for 25 points in a win over North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium in early February.
But the reason Duke won on Thursday was because Kennard got hot at the right time and Duke’s defense made the plays they needed to make.
And at the end of the day, the reason Duke can win a national title is because, on any given night, the Blue Devils have three guys that can be the best player on the floor in any game they play.