Luke DeCock

Grayson Allen can’t shed mental baggage, but he can play above it – DeCock

Not once but twice, Duke came out of timeouts running set plays, getting players into position, orchestrating things on the court, only for Grayson Allen, before the parts even really started moving, to pull up and take a 3-pointer. On one, Amile Jefferson was still getting into position when Allen pulled the trigger.

He made both.

And afterward, Allen laughed about it.

“Yeah,” he said, laughing. “For us, that’s how coach wants us to play, too,” Allen said. “He doesn’t want us to run plays like robots.”

It was the kind of night where Duke’s best play was ignoring the play entirely, and it was the kind of night where Grayson Allen looked, once again, like Grayson Allen. Before the third tripping incident, before the suspension, before everything he did became freeze-frame evidence of nefarious intent.

Maybe because it was North Carolina, maybe because enough time had passed since his indefinite one-game suspension, but there was something noticeably different about Allen on Thursday.

He was having fun.

Allen having fun is an indulgent Allen, shooting early and often, flexing and preening for the fans, shaking Theo Pinson – did Allen get away with a push-off? It sure looked like it – to hit a fadeaway 3-pointer at the end of the first half.

This was not the Allen that returned from suspension in January, a pass-first guard playing without arrogance, clearly laboring under the mental burden of being the most polarizing – hated, even – player in college basketball, the spotlight too bright even if it was only his fault that it had been turned upon him.

This has been coming for a few weeks, but it reached its apex Thursday in Duke’s 86-78 win over North Carolina. His 25 points – he fouled out with 62 seconds to go – were secondary in value to his attitude. The arrogance was back, and Allen cannot be himself without it, and Duke cannot be itself without Allen.

Over the past four games, Allen has had 19, 21, 21 and 25 points, going 20-for-41 from 3-point range. In the six games after his suspension, he was 7-for 28 from long distance: shooting less often, less accurately.

“I’ve definitely felt good lately,” Allen said. “I am having more fun now. It’s never been around the shots falling. I’m playing for this team, and nothing else, and it’s really as simple as that.”

There was a lot of that Thursday night for Duke.

Jayson Tatum, scoreless in the first half, exploded for 19 points in the second half, including a hammering throwdown of a dunk on Kennedy Meeks and the 3-pointer that essentially clinched the game after Joel Berry missed the front end of a one-and-one, turning what could have been a two-point North Carolina lead into a four-point Duke lead.

Luke Kennard continued to dominate, with his passing as much as his shooting. Matt Jones scrambled for a loose ball on a long rebound late, as he so often does. And the Blue Devils managed to hold their own on the boards and get stops at the end, although some quick-trigger offense on North Carolina’s part played into that.

Duke needed every bit of that to hold off North Carolina in the fifth straight edition of this rivalry decided by single digits. Everything finally came together for the Blue Devils, and they couldn’t have picked a better time for it.

Still, none of that would have mattered without getting Allen back to being Allen.

“You diagram something a little different, because you know he’s on,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And then he does it. J.J. (Redick) is here tonight. We did that a lot with J.J. It works when you have someone who can hit shots. That’s a good maturity, to be able to do that from a timeout and actually execute. Plays work when you have good players.”

The scrutiny isn’t going to go away. Allen is going to have to deal with that for the rest of his career, at Duke and otherwise, and he has only himself to blame. We can only guess at the internal demons that raged on the bench after that fateful trip against Elon, but we can observe that he is able to put them aside on the court.

The more Allen allows himself to be defined by his play, the less he’ll be defined by his misdeeds.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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