It didn't take Matisse Thybulle long to look like his usual disruptive self after coming back from injury. After a bone bruise and right knee sprain sidelined him for two weeks, he's swiftly returned to form over the last four games.
Thybulle's best performance since returning came on Wednesday night against the Brooklyn Nets. Brett Brown trusted him to start in Mike Scott's place as the Philadelphia 76ers continued without Joel Embiid, who has now been cleared for non-contact conditioning drills and will be re-evaluated in a week.
Going with Thybulle completely paid off. He played just under 27 minutes and tallied 4 blocks and 2 steals. It's a level of production that's become routine for him at this point. He was quiet offensively, although he did what he needed to with 5 points on 2-of-4 shooting (1-of-3 from deep). He broke out in transition for a layup, hit a corner three, and made a nice pass to Norvel Pelle.
This isn’t the kind of play we’ve seen much from Thybulle. He rejected the screen from Pelle and crossed to his left to create a little space, then flicked up a soft lob to Pelle in the open lane:
Again, as simple as this play may be, it’s one way Thybulle can provide extra offensive value. Controlled drives against closeouts and basic playmaking are key to his success and development to be more than just a spot-up shooter.
As is typically the case, though, Thybulle made his mark with terrific defense. He made a host of standout plays throughout the game against a Brooklyn team that’s loaded with talented ball handlers, from Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie to Caris LeVert on the bench.
Thybulle’s high motor, 7-foot wingspan, closeout speed and agility getting around screens has made an impact all season. Players can’t expect to jog into threes out of dribble hand-offs when Thybulle is trailing. He always makes simple actions harder to execute:
Thybulle was excellent defending in isolation in this game. For instance, take the two plays on Irving in the clip below. The first may be Thybulle’s most impressive play of the night, especially as he capped it off with a triple. After locking down a drive to force Irving to dribble back out and reset, Thybulle calmly shifted around Jarrett Allen’s screen to swat Irving from behind with a perfect rear contest. The second play is another demonstration of Thybulle’s lateral quickness, and how his wide-reaching contests can deter shots:
Thybulle effortlessly did the same thing to LeVert in the second quarter, rejecting a driving layup with a fierce block:
Josh Richardson deserves a lot of credit for Irving scoring only 14 points on 6-of-21 shooting, but Thybulle played a part in this, too. Faring so well against another elite scorer is another statement in his strong rookie campaign.
Thybulle was also entrusted by Brett Brown to stay on the court and close down the stretch. The rookie played 8 minutes in the fourth quarter including the final few minutes, and did all he needed to defensively while Tobias Harris stepped up to carry the offense.
Here, as Ben Simmons (who had another stellar defensive game) denied Dinwiddie from getting the ball on a hand-off, Thybulle came through for a huge stop in the final two minutes. He denied an initial pass to Joe Harris, then smothered him on a drive to the baseline before contesting perfectly with his arms raised to avoid fouling. After Thybulle picked up his fourth block, the Sixers soon forced a shot clock violation:
Earlier in the season, a more handsy Thybulle may have fouled on a drive like this. For a few weeks before his injury, though, he took a clear step forward as a more composed player. He’s continued to refine his play at both ends of the floor, from cutting down unnecessary fouls and defensive gambles to making smarter decisions offensively.
Mike Scott unsurprisingly started the previous three games once Embiid was ruled out with injury. Scott is one of the most confident shooters on the team, averaging more three-point attempts per 36 minutes (6.7) than everyone in the rotation except Furkan Korkmaz (7.5). There’s value in players who fire from anywhere without hesitating. It keeps defenses guessing and stops the offense slowing down when others are more hesitant to shoot. But there’s no denying that this season has been a rough one for Scott. He’s shot just 33.6 percent from three and has the third-worst True Shooting Percentage of his career (53.2), with far too many bad misses on open looks. Defense has been a problem as well. His rotations are often too slow, and he’s been beaten on the ball a lot due to a lack of quickness to hang with faster forwards and guards.
There is a case to stick with Scott as the starter. Some positive regression may hit for his three-point shooting, and his quick-trigger is a useful skill for this team. With the way he's been playing, though, Thybulle simply has more to offer overall. Thybulle’s defensive talent and upside is special, and if he’s making his threes — which he’s been doing so far this season with a 41.8 percent stroke on 4.6 attempts per 36 minutes — he provides far more value.
Alternatively, for an injection of extra ball handling until Embiid's scoring presence is back, the Sixers could consider starting Trey Burke. Raul Neto and Simmons have played a meaningless 4 minutes together this season, while Burke and Simmons have only started playing together more over the last few weeks. They’ve been finding success, though. In a small sample of 83 minutes, the Sixers have a 119.7 offensive rating when Burke and Simmons are together, per PBP Stats. The Sixers could use more creativity off the dribble and letting Simmons operate more off the ball as a screener, roller and cutter has plenty of benefits. There's certainly more value to starting Burke than Scott.
The next question to take this one step further has been a popular Sixers topic recently: should Al Horford come off the bench? Seeing as the offense with Horford and Embiid would rank 29th in the NBA (the Sixers have a 104.2 offensive rating in 403 minutes when they’re together), it's understandable at this point. Accepting this change wouldn’t be easy for Philly after signing Horford for $109 million a matter of months ago, but the fear of sunk cost shouldn’t prevent this team from doing what's best for its offense and optimum lineup combinations. Breaking this down properly is a discussion for another time, though. There’s still half a season to see how things develop and whether Horford can get back to form — he hasn’t looked quite right since dealing with knee issues in December. If this change ever happens, it probably won't be any time soon.
For now, Thybulle stepping into the temporary starting five in place of Scott is more realistic. And given Scott's recent performance, it should help their performance. It lets the Sixers create an imposing, highly versatile defensive unit, and Thybulle has shown that his decision-making is improving and he isn't afraid to shoot.
As long as Thybulle is shooting well and playing such impressive defense, he’s earned a shot to keep getting the nod over Scott.