Sixers vs. Hawks: How Matisse Thybulle will defend Trae Young

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Beal showed Thybulle where he can improve, and another star is looming originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Once just about every player who’d stepped on the floor Wednesday night did exactly as the Sixers' staff would have hoped, head coach Doc Rivers admitted the day had been far from stress-free.

“I tell you, trying to figure out who to start tonight, it was unbelievable how many times we switched lineups in the last 10 hours,” Rivers said following the Sixers’ 129-112 Game 5 win Wednesday night over the Wizards to seal their first-round series. “We were all over the place. I thought as a staff, we did a hell of a job settling and going with it. That was good. Good for everybody.”

A positive slant on why the starting-five decision was so difficult is that there were many intriguing permutations. The essence of the situation, though, is that Joel Embiid is the quintessential irreplaceable player.

Matisse Thybulle ultimately started for Embiid, the Sixers' MVP finalist who is officially “day to day” with a small lateral tear in his right meniscus. Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris comprised the Sixers’ frontcourt.

Spot starts aren’t new for Thybulle. For instance, former head coach Brett Brown didn’t tell him he was starting “until maybe a couple minutes before the game, hour before the game” for a matchup last January in which he guarded Kyrie Irving and Joe Harris

He at least knew Wednesday that, starting or not, he’d be defending Bradley Beal. By Game 5, everyone involved with the series expected the Sixers would put one of the NBA’s top perimeter defenders on a polished, prolific offensive player.

Beal scored 32 points on 10-for-23 shooting, giving him exactly 30 per game for the series on a 59.3 true shooting percentage. He also dished out 4.2 assists per game. 

When guarded by Thybulle, however, Beal shot 3 for 11 from the floor (0 for 3 from three-point range) and had two assists and six turnovers, per the NBA’s tracking data

“He’s one of the best scorers in the world,” Thybulle said. “He’s a really, really high-level player, really high-level competitor. His willingness to take on the challenge of scoring on me, Ben (Simmons), Danny Green, Joel Embiid — he embraces these challenges. I think it speaks a lot to his talent, and also just his willingness as a competitor. I think he helped push me to grow and open up areas for me where I need to grow and get better at. I loved the challenge and I’m pretty sure he did, too.”

Specifically, Thybulle identified discipline as an area where he can improve. Beal drew five shooting fouls on him in the series. During the regular season, Thybulle’s 4.2 foul percentage ranked in the bottom 10 percent for wings, according to Cleaning the Glass

“You guard guys that are that talented, the gambles I can get away with on other guys and in other situations aren’t going to fly — because he’s just too talented,” Thybulle said. “He makes reads too quickly. And also, when you’re at that level, he knows the tendencies of the guys guarding him. It definitely showed with how he attacked depending on who was guarding him. For me, ultimately, just continue to be more and more disciplined.”

Thybulle’s penchant for risk-taking is often a strength. If you have the instincts and physical abilities to get away with gambles that could make your coaches wince, why not toss a few chips into the pot now and then?

He might also be inclined to curb his defensive aggression a bit in Round 2, where the Sixers will face Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks in a series beginning Sunday afternoon at Wells Fargo Center. Young averaged 29.2 points and 9.8 assists in Atlanta’s five-game series win over the Knicks. He drew 8.7 free throws per game during the regular season, fourth in the league. 

“He’s a dynamic scorer and passer,” Thybulle said. “He draws a lot of attention out of the pick-and-roll. His ability to stretch the court with his three, with his range … I think we definitely match up well with these guys. We’re one of those rare teams that has a lot of options on defense, so we have the opportunity to throw a lot of guys at him. I’m fairly confident in our ability to match up with him.”

Young and Thybulle played each other only once this season. Thybulle was sidelined by the NBA’s health and safety protocols on Jan. 11, while Young was out with a left ankle sprain on April 28.

And on April 30, Thybulle checked Young for just 31 seconds. With the Sixers using four perimeter players on their second unit around Dwight Howard, Thybulle’s primary assignment was 6-foot-10 Danilo Gallinari. Green defended Young. 

It would be surprising, though, if Thybulle does not spend significant time on the Hawks’ offensive engine. He’s a flexible defender with extraordinary abilities, and those types of players tend to draw the most marquee names.