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Grayson Allen Kicked Over The Lantern: The Bucks Are Back (But Never Left)

How This Stubborn Badger Loyalist Became an Allen Fan

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls - Game Three Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

On October 8th, 1871, this part of the country was on fire. Literally. A months-long drought, slash-and-burn agriculture, and a strong cold front resulted in massive fires across the Upper Midwest which killed between 2 and 3,000 people. As anyone educated in Wisconsin during grade school may recall from their fourth bulk of those deaths (perhaps up to 2,500) occurred in Wisconsin in the lesser-known but much more devastating Peshtigo fire and several burned in Michigan as well, but the most famous among these is undoubtedly the Great Chicago Fire. No one knows precisely how it started, whether by humans or Mother Nature. While there are many hypotheses, a popular story was that a barn owned by the O’Leary family just west of downtown and across the Chicago River was where it all began. It was said that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocked a lantern over, igniting the historic blaze. This is an urban legend propagated by a reporter, who admitted he made it up for clicks twenty years later, but it persisted in popular culture for generations to come.

If you doubt my objectivity on what is to come, let me tell you a bit about my past opinions of Grayson Allen. Firstly, I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was born and raised in Wisconsin’s capital, the son of two UW alums who stuck around to work nearly their entire careers at the university. Naturally, Badger games were a big part of life: football Saturdays on a crisp fall day, slinging drinks as a vendor at Camp Randall as a teen, three memorable Rose Bowl parties during my youth, the men’s hockey team’s national title in 2006, the women’s hockey team’s national titles every freaking year, and attending women’s volleyball games at the old Fieldhouse. Nothing was bigger, though, than the 2015 National Championship game.

When the Badger men’s basketball team made their cinderella run in the 2000 NCAA Tournament, the city got very whipped up around the first team to make noise on the hardwood in many decades. It was a classic March Madness: a mediocre (at best) program upsetting heavyweights Arizona and Purdue on their way to an unlikely spot in the Final Four. However, it did not really seem to portend anything big to come, until Bo Ryan took over the program in 2001. Those of you who don’t follow college ball and/or never resided in Wisconsin may not understand how Ryan elevated the program to national prominence, routinely turning unheralded recruits into All-Americans and sending quite a few players to the NBA, racking up Big Ten championships along the way.

The culmination of this was in 2015: the Badgers achieved their first-ever number one seed, took out Arizona again (after besting the 1-seeded Wildcats in the Elite Eight the year before for their first Final Four since 2000), setting up a rematch with a Kentucky squad who squeaked past the Badgers by a single point one year prior to make the national title game. That year’s Kentucky roster featured future All-NBA talent in Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns plus a whopping seven other players who made the league. Oh, they also happened to be undefeated entering the matchup at 38-0. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker staged a comeback in the closing minutes to end Kentucky’s perfect season, putting the Badgers a win away from their first national title since 1941.

Their opponent was the Duke Blue Devils, fronted by three five-star freshmen recruits and 2015 first-round picks: Justise Winslow, Jahlil Okafor, and Tyus Jones. There was another future first-rounder and five-star in their recruiting class, though, who did not enter the 2015 NBA Draft (though if he had, he would likely also have been selected in the first round): Grayson Allen. It was he who massively swung the game in Duke’s favor, with coach Mike Krzyzewski saying of his efforts “we were kind of dead in the water. We were nine points down and Grayson just put us on his back.” After averaging just 9.8 minutes and 4.4 points per game off the bench, the mostly-unknown freshman guard scored 10 of his 16 during the second half. He and Jones drove Duke’s comeback from a nine-point Wisconsin advantage in the second half to win the 2015 NCAA title, ruining the evenings of Badger fans everywhere ready to celebrate such a momentous achievement, myself included.

That evening, Allen etched his name in many Wisconsin sports fans' minds as an enemy of the state, myself included again. Beyond coming out of seemingly nowhere, he was unlikeable as a white shooter on Duke in the vein of Christian Laettner and J.J. Redick before him: guys everyone loved to hate because they were good. Allen certainly was good, taking over as Duke’s star the following season (averaging a whopping 21.6 PPG) and playing his full four years of eligibility.

It was not his talents that earned him the ire of opposing fanbases everywhere, though: Allen’s petulance on the court begot some downright dirty play not long into his sophomore season. He tripped opponents, threw elbows, and yelled at refs. As a junior, he said he moved past these transgressions but did it again anyway. Coach K stripped him of the team’s captaincy and suspended him for a game. By this point, he was well established as the NCAA’s most detestable villain. As a senior, he had one further incident and despite an outstanding career at one of the most storied college basketball programs, his reputation was as a complete brat on the court.

Drafted 21st overall by Utah in 2018—a few picks after Donte DiVincenzo—the start of Allen’s professional career didn’t wow many, outside of a 40-point game on the season’s final day when the Jazz rested their stars. Traded to Memphis following his rookie year, Allen’s brattiness reappeared after back-to-back flagrant fouls for the Grizzlies’ Summer League squad, described as “cheap shots” and resulted in an ejection. I repeat: this came in a Summer League game. It seemed that Allen still lacked the maturity expected of an NBA player... if he ever had it in college.

(A quick aside: for many years, I had a girlfriend who hailed from North Carolina. Though she and her nuclear family were UNC fans, one of her cousins’ family was loyal to Duke. Said cousin named her first son Grayson, to their chagrin. More than any Badger fan, they could not stand Allen. My girlfriend was his godmother, which put yours truly in line to be godfather to a child named after Grayson Allen, had we not gone our separate ways. However, he was a very sweet kid and I certainly would have enjoyed being his godfather.)

During his two years in Memphis, Allen quietly went about his business as a role player, becoming a solid role player in his third season. His sharpshooting carried over from college and he was a reliable offensive option for a young team scraping into the postseason, even joining the starting lineup for 38 of his 50 games. My opinion of him had not changed, however: like many in Wisconsin and elsewhere, I hated Allen. Before the 2020–21 season, I figured he was on his way out of the league after just 38 games in each of his first two seasons without much to show for it, outside of a bad attitude that teams probably didn’t want to deal with.

During the short offseason prior to his third year, Allen appeared on J.J. Redick’s The Old Man & The Three Podcast. It was then that he turned me. I admit to knowing little about him off the court, where he apparently is a pretty good guy that is generous in volunteering his time with sick children. In conversation with another legendarily-hated Duke alum, Allen seemed genuinely contrite about his past in college and in summer league. My takeaway from the hour-long interview was that Allen was a hothead who realized not only the error of his ways but that he needed to appreciably change for the better in order to remain in the league. His disarming honesty and affability had me reconsidering Allen as a player on the court. I not only was ready to give him a second chance, but he also changed me from a long-time hater into an actual fan. Yes, I was now a Grayson Allen fan, five years after he crushed the Badgers and went on to become one of the league’s most loathsome players. After I complained many times about how much of a punk he was.

With his rookie contract a year from expiration and needing to preserve cap flexibility for their other, more important young players, the Grizzlies moved him in the offseason to the Bucks for the piddly price of Sam Merrill and two second-round picks. In Milwaukee, he immediately signed a rookie scale extension and joined the starting lineup, where he managed to earn his way into some Wisconsinite’s good graces with consistent scoring. I was thrilled to see him join the Bucks: he addressed a clear need for an athletic guard who could replace DiVincenzo in the starting lineup and while there would be a hit on defense, he appeared to be a massive upgrade over the oft-woeful DiVincenzo on offense with his elite marksmanship.

Some Bucks fans still held out from praising the newcomer Allen, but as we moved into 2022, those opinions grew fainter. More and more dropped their grudges from the national title game, a grudge reinforced by the shoves and trips in the ensuing years. This begs the question: would we Wisconsinites have had any animosity towards Allen had he not factored into the Badgers’ defeat, even with all the dirtiness that followed? I doubt it, but here he was. It seemed he was far enough removed from the brattiness and as a key scorer through injuries to the Bucks’ Big Three, his contributions were appreciated by many. Then came the Caruso incident.

To be clear, it is awful that Caruso was injured and Allen deserved a flagrant foul, but to say that this was Allen’s intention is ludicrous. However, this was certainly a basketball play: of the two swipes that Allen made, the first was defensible. The second was definitely reckless and warranted a flagrant call but it was also a play at the ball, which had just slipped out of Caruso’s hands thanks to the first swipe, which was a typical hard common foul. Allen certainly did not need to follow through so wildly and since the ball was gone, his swing went into Caruso’s right arm. All four of the two players’ arms were entangled as a result and Caruso was sent to the floor, where he sustained his injury from absorbing the fall with his left arm.

This was a bang-bang play and Allen was punished more than appropriately (in my opinion excessively) with an ejection and a suspension: it’s not hard to assume that had this not been committed by Allen and instead by a player with no such reputation, it would have been merely a flagrant-1. Allen never had a flagrant-2 in the NBA and just two flagrant-1s in his four-year career. No matter that this act was atypical of the NBA version of Allen: it was exactly what NCAA Allen did, so he was judged right there and then on the court, more harshly than any other Buck would have been if they had committed an identical act.

Nevertheless, Caruso got up and remained in the game. People judged Allen for smiling at a joke Sandro Mamukelashvili cracked in the huddle as the refs reviewed the play, while Caruso stood on the other sideline seemingly unphased. Bulls head coach Billy Donovan slammed Allen in his postgame conference, essentially begging the league to take action against the Bucks guard. Reportedly, Allen reached out the next morning and apologized to Caruso, who denies such a conversation took place. It was later that day when Caruso’s wrist injury and upcoming absence were reported. A revisionist history take-storm followed from noted Bucks detractors like Richard Jefferson, decrying Allen for the smile as if he took joy in injuring someone. Once again, Allen was a villain.

This brought many haters among the Bucks fanbase out of the woodwork and comments sections on this site were swarmed with bitter Bulls fans ready to call us out as accessories to murder for continuing to support a player from our favorite team, to say nothing of the vitriol on Twitter. Angry takes like suspending Allen for the length of Caruso’s injury (laughably unprecedented), expelling Allen from the league, or throwing him in jail flew from talk-radio big mouths and tweet warriors. Anyone—including writers here who tried to be objective about Allen’s actions—who didn’t think it was as big a deal as our neighbors to the south and their fans said it was were equated in ugly ways to legitimate evil or other unsavory characters. I wish I was exaggerating, but things were very toxic for a stretch. The talk about Allen’s brattiness was back in full force, stronger than it had been since his Duke days. Respected national writers like Zach Lowe were quick to diss Allen, pointing out his resemblance to a certain unpopular politician. Even Redick turned on him, coming to Caruso’s (a regular contributor on his podcast) defense by referring to Allen’s foul with some colorfully disparaging language.

All these people likely were unaware of a play that happened in the game immediately preceding the Bulls’ debacle against Allen’s former team which didn’t fit their narrative. After inadvertently taking down ex-backcourt mate Ja Morant underneath the basket that was not whistled, Allen expressed much more visible remorse and even attempted to help him up. As Marques Johnson would go on to say during the broadcast and seen by coach Mike Budenholzer’s actions on the sidelines, it seems the Bucks tried to dissuade Allen from spending too long doing this in favor of getting back on offense. This isn’t on-brand for the old Allen, much less the resurrection of the brat on the Caruso play.

The damage was done, though, and the old Allen was back. Returning to the Windy City for the Bucks’ first visit there in March, the boos rained down on Allen, and Chicago talk radio was abuzz with disparagement of him. Tristan Thompson, who wasn’t even on the Bulls back in January, jocularly suggested that he’d be willing to exact some revenge on Allen for the Caruso incident. While this didn’t seem to phase him much at all, Allen was a bit quiet with a 7-point outing on 2/6 shooting in 31 minutes. To the delight of Bulls fans, who just a month ago explained to us how terrible we were for defending a player who so flippantly attacked their team’s player midair, Derrick Jones Jr. committed a cavalier flagrant-1 on Allen in what may have been a thinly-veiled bit of revenge catnip for Bulls fans. Coming off the bench in their second regular-season game at the United Center in April, he was a bit more like himself with 13 on 4/6 shooting. It seemed that in a playoff series tied at a game apiece a couple of weeks later, Allen would again be a huge target for the Bulls and their fans’ derision.

Now, after kicking over the lantern and setting Chicago’s basketball discourse in January with a flagrant foul, Grayson Allen has done it again with his offensive play. Is the right word for moving to the bench in favor of defense demotion? Hardly, with how critical he’s been to the Bucks this series, stepping up big after Khris Middleton’s untimely knee injury. In both Games 3 and 4, he outscored any Bull with 22 and 27 points respectively. On Friday he was 5/7 from deep and 8/12 from the floor, improving those numbers to 6/7 and 10/12 yesterday, plus three steals. With those performances, he’s now living in Chicagoans’ heads rent-free: a hated enemy who’s added insult to literal injury. Allen is now an even bigger villain to the city of Chicago, an arsonist who fittingly came south from America’s Dairyland to twice reprise the deed of a legendary bovine.

Game 1 was an uninspiring victory that didn’t leave a great taste in the mouths of Bucks fans. Game 2 was rough from the start and while the end result was respectable thanks to a decent second half, the loss of Middleton to a sprained MCL for multiple weeks loomed as big as the L itself. Tied 1-1 in a series that many expected to be a walkover based on the Bucks 4-0 record against the upstart Bulls during the regular season, snap judgments were everywhere. Among Bucks fans and national media voices alike, the conversation after the result of the first two games was grim.

To be fair, it’s legit to be concerned about this team’s chances to win the East again with Middleton’s injury. We don’t know how the Bucks will fare in the series to come (assuming they do not blow their newly-minted 3-1 lead over Chicago) without their second All-Star. To suggest that the Bucks were in trouble against the Bulls after splitting their first two games was irresponsible and premature, however. As we should recognize after multiple playoff successes and failures by the Bucks (the second round series against Boston in 2019, the East Finals against Toronto that same year, the first round series against Orlando in the 2020 bubble, the second round series against Brooklyn in 2021, and most importantly, the 2021 NBA Finals) tenor of a seven-game NBA series cannot nor should not be judged on the outcomes of games one and two.

This is happening elsewhere this year. After something of a blowout last night, NBA’s best team in the regular season is now tied in their first-round series with a team who finished with a sub-.500 record after losing one of their top two players, also to a short-term injury. Phoenix’s situation is far more dire than Milwaukee’s after Game 2, but many fans treated the 114-110 loss last Wednesday almost like a death knell for their favorite squad. As if a loss to Chicago, whom the Bucks had beaten in 12 of their prior 13 matchups, was an utter disaster. Such a defeatist and pessimistic outlook was gone not 48 hours later with a Game 3 blowout. Making that kind of sweeping presumption in the wake of Game 2 holds value only as a means of stirring up the pot, befitting of Stephen A. Smith or other hot-take artists. Hardly the kind of personality one should be emulating. Still, a segment of Bucks fans did it anyway.

Never mind that the Bucks overcame 0-2 deficits twice last summer to win their first NBA title in fifty years. This was no fluke nor was it an accident: Milwaukee deserved to beat both the Nets and Suns because they flipped the script and actually played well in the remainder of the series, not because their opponents allowed it. Gianns and company built serious character during those series and if there’s anyone who shouldn’t discount this, it’s Bucks fans. Like any team (yes, including the so-called superteams of years gone by), they are susceptible to a game or two of poor shooting, logey offense, or excessive turnovers. If it becomes a pattern through multiple games, it’s worth attention, but it’s not worth the degree of head-hanging we saw late last week. It ignores the equity the team built up from a championship, a successful regular season, and the massive advantage the Bucks have on paper over the Bulls. There is no good reason to handwave those three things away.

While we’re on the subject of series splits, let’s talk about home-court advantage. In 2019, after dropping Game 1 to the Celtics at home in worrying fashion. Famously, Paul Pierce went on record after his former employer’s 22-point win saying the series was over (related: Paul Pierce is no longer employed at ESPN). Of course, this went down as one of the worst takes ever as the Bucks went on to win the next four games convincingly, but one didn’t have to squint to see that unproven Bucks squad of three years ago folding up against a more experienced playoff opponent. A reason people cited for this possibility was that the Celtics “stole” home-court from the Bucks, which was not true: neither side had home-court advantage, with a minimum of two games guaranteed at either arena upcoming.

That line about “stealing” was repeated last week after the Bucks lost Game 2. With the series tied and guaranteed to reach a Game 5, the Bulls were guaranteed two more home games to the Bucks’ one, a ratio that went three to two if the series went seven. While Chicago now actually had more home games to rely on than Milwaukee, it’s again annoyingly defeatest and pessimistic to wring one’s hands enough about this, suggesting that we should be worried as fans about such things. Championship teams need to win games on the road: since 1996, every title-winner needed to win at least once at an opposing arena while they made their pursuit at the Larry O’Brien trophy. Plus, outside of the 2017 Warriors and 1996 Bulls (perhaps the best two NBA teams ever), every one of those champs lost at least one home game during the postseason. Outside of the 2018 Warriors and 2016 Cavs, they all faced a 1-1 (or even 0-2) situation as the higher seed in one of their series as well, with some of those losses coming in Game 1 at home. That means such legendary squads like the Jordan Bulls (twice, including during the Last Dance run), Heatles (twice), the Big Three Celtics, Shaq-Kobe Lakers (thrice) and Tim Duncan’s Spurs (four times) each were in the same situation the Bucks found themselves in after two games in the first round.

Given this much precedence, it’s fair to say that dropping a home game and needing a win on the road is a rite of passage for postseason glory. In order to win a ring, it’s a given that you need to win on the road: it’s never not been necessary to do so. But you also need to prove you can overcome a home loss to win your series. If it’s so common that all champions need to do it, why even mention that a team “lost” home-court advantage after splitting the opening games of a series that they hosted?

Odds are this series will end on Wednesday at Fiserv Forum in a gentlemen’s sweep (an outcome many predicted), and the Bucks will move on to face the Boston Celtics. Most definitely, it’s concerning that Khris Middleton will assuredly not play at the start of the series, and likely will not be at full health even if he does return. However, that reality does not preclude Allen from becoming a flamethrower, nor does it preclude the Bucks’ ability to win the series despite dropping a home game. It does make it a whole lot harder: the 2016 Cavs managed to win as the lower seed with a home loss in the NBA Finals. Of course, they had generational star, but so does this Bucks team.

Until the situation actually turns dire with say, two home losses in a series or going down 0-3 (even 0-2 is less worrisome to me after last year), let’s save the handwringing for Bulls fans.