Photo Credit: Philadelphia 76ers
When Sixers fans reflect on the 2020-21 season, they will appreciate head coach Doc Rivers’ coaching and how it enabled them to lock up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They will be proud to have Joel Embiid listed as an MVP finalist. Begrudgingly, they will appreciate Ben Simmons is in the running for defensive player of the year. Those are the headliners, but a significant subtitle will be Matisse Thybulle and the magic he brings to the defensive end of the floor.
Elton Brand coveted Thybulle’s talent enough to trade the team’s 24th and 33rd overall picks in 2019 for Boston’s 20th pick. At the time, fans felt Celtics general manager, Danny Ainge, had once again fleeced his division rivals. Time would prove otherwise.
Thybulle finished his rookie campaign No.1 among his first-year peers with 1.4 steals per game. His 47 blocks for the season ranked fourth among rookies, but it is noteworthy that his 6’5” stature was three to six inches shorter than the three players who finished in front of him.
Fast forward to the start of this season, and as good as Thybulle felt about his first year as a pro, he had a new coach to win over and new teammates to compete against for playing time. Doc Rivers made it known early the high standard he had set for the second-year forward and his entire team.
“I know we should be a great defensive team,” Rivers said at the start of the season. “I know that, and we will start there. If you look at teams that win the title, they have been in the top five in defense or offense, and they are top ten in the other. You want to be top ten in both. Historically, that would say we are one of the elite teams.”
By historical standards, the Sixers entered the postseason as an elite team. They finished the regular season with the eighth-best field goal percentage, and defensively they rated even higher. The Sixers ranked 4th in opponents’ field goal percentage and sixth in points allowed. Matisse Thybulle played a pivotal role in the team’s defensive numbers by creating turnovers via steals or blocked shots. Thybulle has been investing in his defensive skill set since he was in the fifth grade.
“My dad always preached defense,” Thybulle explained. “He didn’t know a lot about basketball when I first started playing. Then he became a referee and taught himself the game. He realized that guys, even at a young age, guys who could guard always had a place on a team. He continuously preached that to me, and for whatever reason, I had a knack for it, and everything fell into place.”
Thybulle averaged 20 minutes per game in a reserve role this year, but his 2.9 steals per 36 minutes ranked first in the NBA, and his 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes were 15th best in the league. As the regular season was winding down, the chatter of Thybulle being first-team all-defense was kicking up. Whether Thybulle makes the official all-defense first or second-team is still to be determined. In the meantime, Thybulle will continue to do his job and share his knowledge.
“Sometimes I come into a game because a guy’s in foul trouble or gets hurt or someone is scoring too much,” he said. “It varies, but the most important thing is energy and being consistent and disciplined on the defensive end.
“Things that you know well you want to be able to teach other people and help them pick up on. Because I have succeeded at the defensive end so early in my career and figured things out, it is a no-brainer for me to want to help young guys or even older guys who aren’t known for their defense. I like to give them little bits on what I know works that they can implement themselves.”
When this year’s playoffs started, Thybulle took his defensive prowess to new heights. In Philadelphia’s game two first-round victory over the Washington Wizards, Thybulle had four steals and five blocks. He became the eighth player since 1983 to have such a performance in a playoff game, but the first to do so playing less than 20 minutes. Seeing such a performance had his coach making comparisons, something Rivers rarely does.
“I guess you can say he is our defensive Lou Williams,” Doc Rivers said referring to his former player. “Lou Williams played for me, as well as Jamal Crawford, both offensively. You threw them into a game and said if you pass the ball once, you were going to take them out because their job was to score.
“Matisse’s job is to get stops when he comes in. Tony Allen, who I had way back, was very similar because he was coming off the bench for us too. Offensively there are very few guys like them in the league, and usually, they are the sixth man of the year.”
Allen played for Rivers in Boston and picked pockets comparable to Thybulle, but his shot-blocking skills were nowhere near the level of Matisse.
Williams and Crawford have six sixth man of the year awards between them. There is no award for a defensive specialist who comes off the bench, maybe because Thybulle is one of a kind. Many fans believe the defensive side of the ball is less entertaining to watch. Matisse Thybulle is making a case to change that tune.