In the three types of Matisse Thybulle steals, I concluded with the following line: “I mentioned that Thybulle likes to gamble, but he’s less of a gambler and much more of a shark.” Unfortunately, in the Philadelphia 76ers overtime loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Thybulle gambled and lost when guarding Luka Dončić.
In the play below, Dončić seeks an entry pass from his teammate. The first attempt fails, as Thybulle is draped all over Luka and disrupts the catch. However, this doesn’t deter Luka from immediately trying again, this time using Matisse’s gusto against him to seal off the inside.
Thybulle’s wrap-around steals have been a point guard’s worst nightmare. It’s at the point where he sometimes plans them rather than utilizing them as a last ditch effort. Like a true matador, Thybulle will allow a ball-handler by, only to use his impeccable timing to poke the ball free from the rear. But against a crafty, longer ball-handler in Dončić, Thybulle’s gamble backfired.
Matisse gives up on the play after not getting the steal, drawing Harris onto Luka. Granted, that was maybe the least help I’ve ever seen a help defender send. But I don’t fault Tobi’s decision to collapse. Had Thybulle given greater effort to staying in front of or even in stride with Dončić rather than banking on forcing a turnover, Harris would have felt more comfortable staying on the perimeter.
Thybulle’s final gamble against Luka led to an and-one for the latter. Below, Dončić easily slips by Thybulle on a basket cut and there’s no one around to protect the rim. Matisse, trailing Dončić, goes for the steal rather than positioning. Thybulle is caught flat-footed and the savvy Dončić leans in.
If it sounds like I’m being hard on Thybulle, I am! It’s Luka freaking Dončić, a guy who is not only supremely talented but has also been a professional since he was 16 years old (he knows the tricks). Defending him is no easy task — the list of players who’ve failed is long and continuously growing. And Matisse’s skill set is perhaps most effectively deployed as an off-ball defender or defending the point of attack against smaller guards who mistake his length and agility.
But if Thybulle hopes to be featured in the Sixers rotation down the stretch of the bubble, he’ll need to be careful of getting burnt too often. He won’t always be tasked with guarding players as skilled as Dončić, but more than his own skill, Dončić used Thybulle’s aggression against Matisse. It’ll be interesting to see if more opponents take notice of Thybulle’s tendencies as the stakes increase.
The greater implication though could be for Ben Simmons and what’s demanded of him on the defensive end in the near term. Thybulle will bulk up (aside from burning him, Luka simply muscled his way through ‘Tisse a few times) and his sense of when to gamble and when to play it straight will improve. But at least right now, he may not be as effective a stopper of dynamic wings as we thought. There aren’t Lukas all over the NBA, but there is Jayson Tatum, Pascal Siakam, Khris Middleton and Jimmy Butler in the Eastern Conference alone.