DURHAM, N.C. -- With the comfort of a raucous arena losing its mind around him, Grayson Allen on Thursday night put up one of the strongest games of his career.
Maybe it winds up being the most important.
"Grayson had an amazing game," Mike Krzyzewski said after Duke's 86-78 win over North Carolina.
The word "amazing" is thrown around way too frequently in sports, but Allen's showing in the biggest rivalry in college basketball qualifies. A national stage, a big moment for his team and the validity of its talent -- and he came through. He was the most consistent player on the floor. Without him, Duke does not win against North Carolina. There's no higher compliment for him right now than that.
In previous games, Allen's been a bit player, inconsequential at times. He looks like he's returning to star status, which will only make Duke more dangerous.
Perhaps now Allen will be able to get through the rest of the season without melodrama, the North Carolina test serving as a potential final barrier to clear. For the first time in a very long time, Allen's performance and all of the talk afterward was only about what he did and what his team did -- in victory. He put up a game-high 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting, sinking seven 3s in the process. After a couple of his 3-pointers, he looked left, to the Crazies, and very much seemed to feed off their energy. He looked like the player a lot of people predicted would be the national Player of the Year.
"It feels good to just be out the playing the game that I love -- and loving it," Allen said. "Really just having fun with it, whether my shot falls or not. That's how I grew up playing the game. Just loving to compete. It feels good to do just that."
He played with no hesitancy, and even though he fouled out with a minute remaining, it wasn't a stilted effort for Allen. He didn't just lead his team to a win; most of those triples came in big spots, to either give Duke the lead, crack back at a UNC run, or in the case of the final bucket, to firm up victory. When his final shot sank, Cameron cracked to thunder.
"It sucks to be on the bench, especially with one minute left in a close game," Allen said. "But I was kind of throwing myself all in, and I realized if I wasn't going to be on the court I was going to be the No. 1 fan, No. 1 supporter. And I felt like I was out there, at the same time, because I was trying to be so involved in the game."
The UNC conquest established a pattern. Duke's four-game winning streak has moved the team to 19-5 (7-4 in the ACC), with two of those wins on the road and two at home. In every game, Allen's been on the floor at least 75 percent of the time, and in fact the UNC game was his most efficient. Those 25 points came in 30 minutes on 15 shots. Duke's success has been buttressed by Allen's run -- an important materialization. In the past four games the junior wing is averaging 21.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Duke's won those four games by an average of seven points.
"We're starting to make more reads, we're starting to play together more," Allen said.
Allen's also become just the third player in program history to hit at least six 3-pointers in consecutive games, joining Jason Williams and Trajan Langdon. And when Allen makes at least three 3-pointers, Duke is 9-0 this season.
"It's a commitment to what you're playing for, and I made a commitment to play my team and nothing else," Allen said.
I understand that much of the general public despises Allen. His actions have provoked a national loathing we haven't seen with a Duke player since J.J. Redick -- who was two rows back and seated mere feet from Allen on Thursday. I saw Redick and remembered the way he used to face a lot of real hate, including fans bringing signs with erroneous gay slurs directed at him.
Allen's gone through a lot of that as well now, but in the past week or so, it seems like he's made peace with his reality. One source told me he's learned to accept what he can't control, and now look at him. He's handled fight-baiting from opponents with maturity, and on a day-by-day basis, it's probably a pressure-pinched life to be Grayson Allen these days.
He's going to be hated at the college level no matter what, but that fact shouldn't alter who he is for this team. I think it's no coincidence that Allen's now hit the strongest stretch of his season at a time when he's finally been able to remove himself from being college basketball's most recognizable player and instead play and act like the guy who can give opponents the most frustrating reason of any to dislike him: by beating them.