The Philadelphia 76ers’ defense was always going to be tested in a playoff series against the Boston Celtics. The combination of Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum is a lot to handle. Now, the Sixers are going to be missing their best perimeter defender in the hyper versatile Ben Simmons, and an important backup wing in Glenn Robinson III for at least 7-10 days due to an oblique muscle strain. The Sixers’ defense is going to be stretched thin to say the least.
Matisse Thybulle, with his terrific speed, length, instincts and versatility on the wing (not to mention his elite defensive playmaking to come up with steals and blocks), is going to be more important than ever at this end of the floor.
Brett Brown has said a few times over the last week that Thybulle is going to play a significant role defensively in the playoffs. At the Sixers’ practice on Sunday, Brown reiterated this and even said that he’s even considering starting Thybulle against the Celtics. If this is the case, Thybulle should really replace Al Horford rather than Shake Milton. While keeping Horford in the starting lineup has its benefits (such as maintaining a size advantage over Boston) and replacing Milton with Thybulle would bolster the Sixers’ defense, they would lose too much shooting and ball handling if they take out Milton.
Jayson Tatum poses the biggest threat to these depleted Sixers. Ben Simmons, at 6’10” with his unique blend of quickness and strength, is built far better than anyone on Philly’s roster to contain Tatum’s scoring. There’s no avoiding how problematic the Tatum matchup will be with Simmons on the sidelines. Without him, and Josh Richardson likely busy guarding Kemba Walker, the Sixers’ best remaining wing defender to throw at Tatum is Thybulle.
Clearly this isn’t an ideal matchup. Thybulle can’t match Tatum’s size and strength, and I’m expecting him to struggle at times through the series against Boston’s bigger scorers. It will be more difficult for Thybulle to contest Tatum’s elite pull-up shooting around ball screens given his height at 6’8”, and contain Tatum’s size in the post and on drives, where Tatum has improved his finishing and ability to draw fouls.
Tobias Harris will probably get some run defending Tatum, and it could at least be worth trying Al Horford on Tatum in spurts, especially if Horford is staying in the starting lineup. The Sixers can let Joel Embiid take the center assignment to make it easier for him to stay near the rim and roam off the ball, and Horford, who’s moving better on defense in Orlando, at least has more size to utilize against Tatum even if he can’t match his explosiveness laterally. However, when considering the Sixers’ options based on their overall combination of length, foot speed, IQ, and overall defensive talent to disrupt plays, Thybulle is the guy.
At the Sixers’ practice on Sunday, Thybulle was asked if he changes his preparation and film study at all for facing bigger wings rather than guards. He made it clear that his process stays the same.
“We keep talking about preparation for defense, but really all you need to prepare for on defense is just make sure you know the scout [report] and you’re ready to play with some effort,” Thybulle said. “Because at the end of the day, defense is there for me — like, I can tap into just the will to play. For the playoffs, I think it’s just really going to come down to the scout. So, just understanding how we’re rotating, how we’re guarding, and what we’re doing on an individual and a team basis schematically is going to be the biggest thing in terms of preparation.”
“Defense is defense, the same way shooting is shooting,” Thybulle added. “I feel like I know what to do at this point and it’s just going out there and doing it within the rules that we’ve set our team.”
When discussing the concerning challenge of defending Tatum and the Celtics’ wings without Simmons and Robinson III on Sunday, Brown described it simply as “punishing”. Obviously unwilling to reveal his intended matchups, Brown also stressed the importance of the team’s approach and there being less room for mental errors now.
“You’re not just going to have J-Rich and Matisse play 48 minutes,” Brown said. “So, it bleeds into a lot of other things that are the reason you have a team. The group effort, the understanding of knowledge of personnel, tendencies, the schematic end of a game plan — it’s got to be precise. You don’t have the luxury or wiggle room of a misstep, of a mistake, a lack of a proper read.”
Thybulle has mentioned a couple of times in Orlando that he’s grateful for the opportunities he has to guard top opposing players. He knows this has helped him develop through his rookie year, and he also believes that he’s made his decision-making process on defense a bit cleaner as the season has progressed. He’s learned how to play with more control and take fewer gambles, which will be key against the Celtics’ crafty scorers.
“This is really no difference,” Thybulle said when explaining if his process to prepare for playoff games is any different. “Every game I’ve played essentially my job has been to guard the best player, maybe with the exception of, like, Kawhi [Leonard] and LeBron [James],” Thybulle explained. “Really, for me, this is no different. I think the stakes are a little bit higher and I think we all feel that. But in terms of how I’m approaching it, it’s the same way I’ve had to approach every game. Because every game so far has been me trying to prove myself to the league and to our coaches and my teammates, and now it’s our team trying to prove ourselves as just being the best.”
“All year I’ve been guarding the best player on every team, so I think that’s prepared me really well for what we have ahead of us.”
Thybulle’s strong defense has continued in the bubble. Most recently he did a good job handling James Harden, and his stocks have been impressive as always — he averaged 1.8 steals and 0.9 blocks in the Sixers’ eight seeding games in 22.2 minutes a night. Thybulle has now finished his first regular season ranking 2nd in steals per 36 minutes at 2.6 (among 339 players who have played at least 500 minutes), and 4th in deflections per 36 minutes at 4.7.
Facing the Celtics will be a real challenge for Thybulle. Whether he’s trying to execute rear contests on Kemba Walker in pick-and-rolls without fouling, or guarding drives from bigger wings like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
There won’t be many advantages or positives for the Sixers in this series as they move forward without Simmons, but Thybulle having a chance to be tested in the playoffs and prove what he can do at the highest level will be a valuable experience for him as he continues to develop. He might be the best rookie perimeter defender we’ve ever seen, and he’s looking forward to his first playoff opportunity.
“It’s exciting,” Thybulle said when asked how he feels about taking on a major role in the playoffs. “I think that means that I’ve earned a certain level of trust from my teammates and the coaching staff.”
“I think my work has paid off, and now it’s really time to showcase everything that we’ve been preparing for.”
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.