Matisse Thybulle got off to a tough start this season. The Philadelphia 76ers’ second-year wing missed a lot of training camp with an ankle injury, and later missed three games in early January due to health and safety protocols following Seth Curry’s positive COVID-19 test. Understandably, Thybulle wasn’t at his best to begin the season. He displayed the same weaknesses on offense while making a few too many defensive mistakes, from overly aggressive fouls to unnecessary gambles that took him out of position.
Offensively, Thybulle is essentially still the same (although his somewhat heightened instincts and activity as a cutter has been an early positive). But on defense, Thybulle has been getting back into impressive form since returning from his three-game absence. He’s been locked in, as disruptive as ever off the ball, cutting down on gambles, and playing at an elite level. And in the nine games he’s played since returning, he’s averaged 2.3 steals and 1.1 blocks in 19.7 minutes per game.
His best defensive performance of the season so far came in the Sixers’ 119-110 comeback win against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday. After trailing by 20 points and as much as 16 in the fourth quarter, the Sixers went on a 31-6 run over the final 8 minutes to completely turn the game around. The big change at the heart of their late success was shifting to a 2-3 zone in the fourth quarter, where Thybulle starred in a leading role.
Zone defense can’t be used too much in the NBA, especially against strong shooting teams. It can be too easy enough to adjust and generate decent three-point looks if you keep the ball moving well. But spells of zone defense can be effective when used selectively against the right opponents, and it made sense against a Pacers team which only ranks 19th in three-point attempts (34 per game) and 20th in efficiency (35.7). Without too many three-point marksmen and a guard like T.J. McConnell in the game, who provides no threat from three (and played 10 minutes in the fourth quarter), the Sixers’ 2-3 zone completely threw the Pacers off.
Thybulle was absolutely dominant. He was constantly breaking up passes outside, making timely digs, cutting off drives, poking the ball away from guards and Domantas Sabonis in the lane, and smothering jump shot attempts in the middle of the zone and at the arc (he had a phenomenal closeout block on a Malcolm Brogdon triple). Thybulle finished the game with 4 steals, 2 blocks and 5 deflections in 25 minutes.
“You can basically cut off the top of the floor, and I thought those two guys [Thybulle and Ben Simmons] did that,” Doc Rivers said after the game when discussing the shift to using zone.
Here are some highlights of Matisse Thybulle's dominant defense against the Pacers, including him wreaking havoc in the Sixers' 2-3 zone.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) February 1, 2021
He finished the game with 4 steals, 2 blocks and 5 deflections in 25 minutes. pic.twitter.com/MKEyZkXChI
Thybulle, who excelled when playing a lot of zone defense during his time in college at Washington, certainly enjoyed himself.
“At certain points, you gotta just throw something out there to get some change and things weren’t going our way, and we said, ‘let’s just try a zone,’” Thybulle said.
“We joked about it in the locker room,” he added, “but it was like getting back to the good old days of the zone when I was in college and I could just go do whatever I wanted, but now with a little bit more structure. It was fun. We kind of just threw it together and just played hard through it, and got some stuff done.”
Thybulle said it was great to be playing at the top of the zone next to Ben Simmons. As you’d expect with their length, speed, effort and instincts, the duo was extremely disruptive, flying around the court and breaking up passing lanes. “It probably sucked for the other team,” Thybulle said with a laugh. “Whenever Ben and I can get out there and start playing defense together and start making things happen, we love it.”
The Sixers had hardly spent any time working on their zone defense, either.
“Probably about five minutes,” Tobias Harris said when asked about how much the Sixers have worked on zone in practice. “And I’m not exaggerating. I’m being honest with you. It was one practice, we just looked over it a little bit, and it was really in preparation for another team we were playing that played zone. That was about it.”
Doc Rivers brought in former long-time Pacers assistant coach Dan Burke to be his defensive coordinator in Philly. Burke has a stellar reputation for both his basketball mind and how he can get the most from his players, and he’s had a clear impact with the Sixers so far. He’s helped implement some schematic changes — like more aggressive pick-and-roll defense which has seen Joel Embiid coming up higher against more screens — and he suggested the Sixers use some zone against Indiana before the game even began.
“Dan recalled the game last year when I was with the Clippers, it was very similar,” Rivers explained. “We were down, went zone and won the game. We were talking about it before the game, and he said, ‘I know it’s a different team, but that affected us,’ meaning Indiana, last year. He said if we get in trouble tonight, let’s go to it. So we talked about it before the game.”
“I just wanted to knock them off rhythm. I thought they had such great rhythm against us for those three quarters.”
The Sixers also mentioned after the game just how key communication was. Harris credited the zone for getting the team talking more on defense, while Rivers said that because the team was defending in front of the bench (and there was also no crowd noise), players were able to hear the coaches and everyone on the bench talking.
Thybulle is now averaging 1.6 steals and 0.8 blocks in 16.1 minutes per game this season. On a per 36-minute basis, he’s leading the NBA in steals (3.5) and deflections (6.6) by comfortable margins (among players with at least 50 minutes played).
Doc Rivers and the rest of his coaching staff are happy with the progress Thybulle has made. They’ve seen natural development from him, and know how it important it was for him to simply adjust to a new defensive scheme and get healthy after training camp. But the Sixers’ coaches have also made it a point of emphasis to break down film with Thybulle and show him where he can change his approach, cut down gambles, and maximize how much he can help the team.
“I think the two things are he had to get healthy,” Rivers said. “He missed basically the whole of camp. The second thing, he had to learn how to play our defense. As good as he is, we thought early on he was gambling, he was putting himself in a lot of bad spots. He was allowed to do that, and we don’t — we just can’t.
“You’ve got to be solid and be a team defender. With his ability as an individual defender, and now you turn him into a great team defender, he’s limitless in the different spots we can use him. He’s just been absolutely wonderful.”
Of course, Thybulle’s jump shot (23.1 percent from three this season, and 33.2 percent for his career) and his offense in general need plenty of work. But Thybulle has been just as Rivers described on defense — absolutely wonderful. He’s playing to his strengths and doing so with more control. With the way he’s tormenting opponents right now, he looks primed to start racking up more standout defensive performances like his night against the Pacers.