In ‘very ironic' situation, Thybulle shows why he's a rarity


Zone defense is a rarity in the NBA. So is Matisse Thybulle, who won the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award as a senior at the University of Washington and catalyzed the Sixers’ comeback win Sunday night against the Pacers in a defense Tobias Harris estimated the team had practiced for “probably about five minutes, and I’m not exaggerating.”

Thybulle had four steals and two blocks in the fourth quarter of the Sixers’ 119-110 victory without Joel Embiid (back tightness) in a 2-3 zone. Below is a brief documentation of his impactful defensive plays within the first six minutes of the final period:

  • Picked off a pass intended for Jeremy Lamb in the middle of the zone, leading to a Tyrese Maxey layup on the other end of the floor.
  • Hustled back to track down T.J. MConnell and poke away a steal. Dwight Howard finished off the ensuing possession with an offensive rebound and dunk.
  • Took a charge on an Aaron Holiday drive from the top of the key.
  • Recovered after McConnell gained an initial edge on a drive, blocking his shot. Maxey took the defensive rebound, went coast-to-coast and banked in a floater.
  • Closed out brilliantly on Malcolm Brogdon, blocking his three-point attempt from the right wing. Harris then scored on a fast-break layup.

Six minutes. 

“Putting him in man makes him great but putting him in zone takes him to a different level, because now his instincts take over, and his hands,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “I think he had 11 deflections in the fourth quarter alone. If your team has 11 in the fourth, you’re happy. Matisse had 11 on his own in the fourth quarter, so that tells you how active he was.”

Unsurprisingly, Thybulle savored the opportunity to play zone again. Soon after being drafted, he’d had to insist to reporters that he was perfectly capable in man-to-man defense. He recognized the situation Sunday as a “very ironic” one. 

“It felt good,” he said. “We joked about it in the locker room, 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 — now with a little bit more structure. It was fun. We kind of just threw it together, played hard through it and got some stuff done.”

Rivers only used Thybulle for 17 seconds in the Sixers’ regular-season opener as a late-game defensive specialist. He hadn’t played him much during the preseason either, and it seemed the rookie defensive sensation did not have a rotation spot secured in Year 2. 

Thybulle’s left ankle sprain during training camp factored into that apparent slow start gaining Rivers’ confidence, though there were also certain risks his new coach wanted him to curb.

“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.”

The statistics for Thybulle are as exceptional as the play-by-play details of his fourth-quarter exploits would suggest. His 3.9 steal percentage and 2.7 block percentage are both best among all NBA wings, per Cleaning the Glass. With 2.9 deflections per game, he has more than any player averaging under 25 minutes

Offense is and always has been a lot less impressive for Thybulle, though he did chip in five fourth-quarter points against Indiana. The 23-year-old’s primary mode of offensive contribution is catch-and-shoot threes, and he hasn’t done that well since a hot beginning to his rookie season. Following a 1-for-4 performance Sunday, Thybulle has made 9 of 39 threes (23.1 percent) this year. He doesn’t yet appear refined or remotely dangerous attacking closeouts with dribble penetration, although one turnover in his last 160 minutes is a positive note.

When Embiid is available to play, one imagines the Sixers will mostly shift away from zone. It won’t be a secret weapon anymore, and opponents will (or should be) especially wary of Thybulle lurking around every corner, sniffing out steals and blocks.

The zone Sunday night had to be an enjoyable watch for Sixers fans, though, with Thybulle and Ben Simmons deviating far from any stereotypes about a bland, conservative, pack-it-in defensive scheme. 

Thybulle never minds being able to spark some action. 

“It was great, and it probably sucked for the other team, the Pacers,” he said with a laugh. “It was fun. Whenever Ben and I can get out there and start playing defense together and start making things happen, we love it.”

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