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Matisse Thybulle continues to impress Sixers with his defense

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“I think he has the potential to be the best defender in the league.”

Houston Rockets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Matisse Thybulle has been on a defensive tear over the last month. He was at it yet again in the Philadelphia 76ers’ latest game, a 118-113 win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night.

The Sixers went back to a heavy usage of their 2-3 zone defense to bother the Rockets, and Thybulle thrived. He helped contain plenty of the Rockets’ drives, contested three-pointers as always, and disrupted a host of plays off the ball as he flew into passing lanes using his speed, length and stellar anticipation. Whether he was competing on the ball or causing havoc while roaming in the Sixers’ zone, he racked up a host of eye-catching plays.

Thybulle played a season-high 31 minutes, and finished the game with 4 steals, 1 block and 8 deflections.

Head coach Doc Rivers and the Sixers’ players have always had plenty of praise for Thybulle’s defense, and they’ve only been more impressed by some of his recent performances.

“When you got Matisse in the game, I feel like that’s our best defense,” Joel Embiid said after the Sixers’ win against the Rockets. “He gets his hands on everything. I think he has the potential to be the best defender in the league.”

Embiid was asked about whether the Sixers can use zone defense a bit more with the help of Thybulle, and Embiid emphasized just how important Thybulle is in making that an effective option at times.

“Just the way he moves and the way he plays on defense and he’s got great hands,” Embiid said. “He’s one of the reasons why we [use zone]. We did it in Indiana, in that fourth quarter, and it completely changed the game. And tonight, we basically did it the whole game. He was all over the place and I think he has a chance, especially when it comes to the All-NBA Defensive Team.”

Rivers didn’t go into the game planning to use much zone against the Rockets, but once he saw the team and Thybulle having success with it, he decided to keep it going.

“As good as he is in man [defense], he’s an even better zone defender, because he can float around and use his length,” Rivers said. “We haven’t done [zone] much without Ben [Simmons] on the floor, the Matisse-Ben combination is fantastic. Tonight we did it. We really didn’t plan on doing it long, we were going to do it in stretches, but once we figured that that caused confusion, we stayed in it.”

As the Sixers didn’t have Simmons on Wednesday due to illness, Danny Green had the chance to spend more time working next to Thybulle in the 2-3 zone.

“It’s been a lot of fun actually watching him work and working to the side of him,” Green said. “When you play in that zone, he kind of licks his chops and gets ready to go. That’s what he loves to do. It’s what he did in college, he’s a mastermind at it. He knows how to be active, deceptively messes with the offense’s mind, and getting in those passing lanes and getting a lot of deflections. Seeing him work in that zone is amazing.”

“It changed the game. He was a big change, energy-wise, on the defensive end of the floor. He ran the floor, got in the passing lanes, was active, and did his job. Even though he only got two shots, which is kind of crazy, he was very effective on the floor for us tonight.”

Since returning from a three-game absence due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols following Seth Curry’s positive test in January, Thybulle’s defense has been excellent. He’s improved as the season has progressed, while reducing his gambles for steals and blocks that can result in unnecessary fouls or him falling out of position. Cutting down these errors has been a point of emphasis for Rivers and the Sixers’ coaching staff, and their guidance and film work with Thybulle to show him how he can develop — along with his own growth and improved poise — has helped lead to a host of standout defensive performances.

After rejoining the team on January 14, Thybulle has averaged 2 steals and 1 block in just 20.5 minutes per game. For the season overall, he leads the NBA in steals per 36 minutes at 3.2 (among players with at least 100 minutes played) and deflections per 36 minutes at 6.2.

Thybulle’s defense against the Rockets was just the latest example of what he can do. As he continues to excel at that end of the floor and gives the Sixers more flexibility to sprinkle in extra zone usage to throw off opponents, it’s no surprise the team is impressed.