This is a weekly series where we’ll look back at one player’s performance to see who stood out and why. Whether it’s the best player on the team, someone at the bottom of the bench who stepped up, or anyone in between.
Last week’s results: 117-111 W @ Brooklyn, 95-107 L @ Toronto, 108-91 W vs. Los Angeles.
Matisse Thybulle has started the last six games for the shorthanded Philadelphia 76ers, and he’s well and truly delivered. His three-point shooting has cooled down (22.5 percent since returning from injury on January 9), but his defense in particular has continued to be seriously impressive.
Thybulle started last week with 3 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals and a block against the Brooklyn Nets. Despite his cold 1-of-7 shooting, he made a major impact overall thanks to his defense. Along with Ben Simmons’ career night, it was a stellar defensive effort in the fourth quarter that helped lead the Sixers close out the game. Thybulle and Simmons led the way in this regard, showcasing how dominant they can be together.
The Sixers’ rookie was a menace. He tirelessly ran around screens, denied passes, snuffed out passing lanes, deterred shots at the perimeter, and broke up pick-and-rolls. This is one of many plays that demonstrated Thybulle’s quick hands, coordination and reach. As Caris LeVert tries to get driving downhill, Thybulle extends around attempts to drive around Nicolas Claxton’s screen, Thybulle extends around the screen and perfectly pokes away the ball from behind, straight into the arms of Simmons to set up a fast break:
Many defenders wouldn’t be able to make anything happen in this situation when trailing from behind. But Thybulle has all the physical tools and aggressiveness to create takeaways out of nothing. It’s also helped that he’s cut down his fouls on overly-ambitious plays since earlier in the season.
As the game wound down, Thybulle continued to give Brooklyn’s guards hell when trying to attack out of pick-and-rolls. On the first screen he gets around Tauren Prince so Al Horford can switch back onto Allen. Then, after beating another screen (this time from Allen), Thybulle recovers to ensure Spencer Dinwiddie doesn’t have enough space to fire a three and smother’s Dinwiddie’s drive to force him out of bounds (along with Simmons, who dug down to help bother the drive):
Overall, Thybulle’s outing against the Nets may have been the most disruptive defensive performance of his young career.
The Sixers have a 101.1 defensive rating when Thybulle and Simmons are on the floor — this would be just ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks for the best defense in the NBA. This is particularly impressive as most of their time together (499 of their 608 minutes) has come without Joel Embiid on the court to help. Whether they’re guarding a pick-and-roll together or simply shifting around the floor and disrupting plays on or off ball, they’re a fierce defensive duo.
Even with a few more rookie mistakes in the Sixers’ next game against the Toronto Raptors, with 5 fouls and some unwise gambles, Thybulle still made a clear positive impact. He tallied 2 steals and also heated up somewhat offensively, scoring 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting, including 3-of-9 from three.
On defense, Thybulle bothered opponents in all the ways you’d expect. He broke up passing lanes and helped contain the Raptors’ scorers on the ball. This included some switches onto Pascal Siakam, when Thybulle was able to hang on drives and use his length to contest without fouling:
Thybulle finished the week with another strong performance against the Lakers. He only tallied 6 points on 2-of-6 shooting (all of which came from beyond the arc), but was his typical ball-hawking self on defense. He made life difficult for the Lakers’ guards, broke up a host of passes, and even found some success when matched up against LeBron James.
Of course, James can create against anyone. There’s only so much Thybulle could do, especially as James has such a massive strength advantage. Nevertheless, while James wasn't defended by Thybulle too often and was able to bully his way past sometimes, the rookie still held up well at others.
For starters, it took Thybulle less than 2 minutes to come up with this crafty play. His fast hands, long reach and aggressive swipe at the ball caught James completely by surprise:
It's not easy to do this to LeBron James.
Here, Thybulle wisely fronted James in the post and had no trouble breaking up Anthony Davis's entry pass. Thybulle is far too long and active to make plays like this safe for opposing offenses, which stops James getting a chance to exploit a physical mismatch on the low block:
The room for error when opponents are moving the ball is always heavily reduced when Thybulle is nearby.
He knows how to bait players into turning the ball over, too. Here, you can see him anticipate Danny Green getting ready to make the simple read to Avery Bradley in the corner. Rather than immediately jumping into the passing lane, Thybulle pauses for a moment to ensure Green makes the pass before calmly cutting off the baseline and snatching away the ball:
After 39 games, Thybulle is still maintaining eye-popping steal and block numbers. He ranks 14th in steals per game at 1.6 despite averaging just 20.1 minutes a night. He ranks 17th in total steals at 62, and has done so in fewer minutes (783) than anyone who ranks in the top 60. On a per 36 minute basis, he’s 2nd with 2.9 steals, to go along with 1.6 blocks (35th) and 4.8 deflections (6th among players with at least 100 minutes).
If Thybulle had been playing more minutes this season, he might have been heading towards the discussion for an All-Defensive team. At this rate, voters might involve him anyway. Some more starts and extra minutes in Josh Richardson’s absence could also help Thybulle strengthen his body of work. His production is elite already. And while over-aggressive gambles and fouls can still cost him at times, he’s noticeably cut down on those errors as the season has progressed and his disruptive impact stands out when watching every night at this point.
Ideally for the Sixers, Thybulle will be able to partner this defensive play with some positive regression from three-point range, too. He was always going to fall back to earth somewhat after shooting 46.3 percent from deep over the 30 games before his injury, but he’s also far better than the 22.5 percent he’s shot since returning. For the season overall he’s sitting at 37.4 percent now, which is probably a more accurate representation of what he can do. One positive for his shooting during the recent slump is that his confidence hasn’t wavered. He’s up to 4.9 three-point attempts per 36 minutes this season — good volume can help him serve as an adequate spacer.
The depleted Sixers have needed everyone to step up recently. With his defense leading the way, Thybulle provided a big spark in the starting lineup to help them earn two strong wins last week.