76ers

Can Matisse Thybulle keep this up? Sixers rookie leads NBA in both steals and deflections

Can Matisse Thybulle keep this up? Sixers rookie leads NBA in both steals and deflections

After a game in which two All-Stars got ejected and a third, Ben Simmons, stayed in the game despite a well-executed headlock on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center, it would be understandable to focus entirely on the fight between Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns.

However, there’s a fact that shouldn’t be glossed over: Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle leads the NBA in steals with 12 after a four-steal night Wednesday vs. the Timberwolves. He’s first in deflections, too, with 21, and also has six blocks.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Thybulle said following the Sixers’ 117-95 win over Minnesota. “I don’t even know what to make of it. I’m just going out there and trying to do my job. To think that I could lead the NBA — even though it’s so early — in any stat, it's pretty cool. And for it to be one that I take that much pride in, it’s pretty special.”

As Thybulle noted, it’s early. The 4-0 Sixers have 78 regular-season games to go. Opponents might start to become more cautious when Thybulle is in the vicinity and game plan for his gambling. They might recognize he sometimes plays like a clever NFL free safety, baiting passes he can snatch, and have counters designed specifically for him. Thybulle’s level of play also might simply decline at some point because of the fatigue of his first NBA season.

For the time being, we have to acknowledge a rookie averaging 21.8 minutes per game is leading the league in two significant defensive categories. And it’s not as if Thybulle is making so many self-centered gambles that he’s hurting the Sixers defensively more than helping — he has a 91.5 defensive rating and plus-9.6 defensive box plus-minus. The numbers still don’t mean much this early in the season. But, in the context of Thybulle’s background as the all-time Pac-12 steals leader and his highly impressive preseason, they mean something.

“I think he just fits into this whole defensive mindset, this defensive identity — trying to be as disruptive as we can defensively,” Brett Brown said. “He fits in just fine — really fine. And over time, he'll grow to understand sort of when is it just too risky in the moment, but he really does fit into what we're trying to do defensively."

NBA offense has been a much less fluid adjustment for Thybulle, who has made 4 of his 15 three-point attempts and has 11 turnovers. He’s yet to provide the outside shooting the Sixers — 31 percent from long range thus far — are seeking.

Brown acknowledged pregame Shake Milton’s left knee injury also removes a shooter from the picture. Milton told NBC Sports Philadelphia Wednesday that he and the Sixers’ training staff have the goal of him being ready to return to game action when he’s re-evaluated following the team’s upcoming West Coast road trip. Milton said he feels “pretty good” at the moment and is grateful his injury wasn’t worse.

With Milton out and Thybulle ineffective offensively, Furkan Korkmaz provided Wednesday what Brown and the Sixers had envisioned he could. The 22-year-old had 17 points on 5 for 10 shooting (3 for 8 from three-point range).

Brown has said he “wants to grow a bomber,” and Korkmaz did well in showing why the Sixers think he should contend for that job. James Ennis was another Sixers bench player who had a strong night — the veteran had five offensive rebounds in close to 19 minutes. That’s one fewer than Minnesota collected as a team. 

But Ennis and Korkmaz weren’t the big story Wednesday night. Thybulle wasn’t either, which is remarkable on a night when he took the NBA lead in a major statistical category.

He didn’t have any elaborate explanations for how well he’s taken to professional defense.

“Just playing hard,” he said. “My whole thing is just playing hard. I’ve done that my whole career, and I’ve been lucky enough that it’s translated at this level.”



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Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle come up large in Sixers' win over Raptors

Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle come up large in Sixers' win over Raptors

BOX SCORE

It may be early in the NBA schedule, but this wasn’t just another game for the Sixers.

In a game that had a playoff-like atmosphere, they held on to beat the Raptors, 110-104, at the Wells Fargo Center Sunday night.

Ben Simmons played composed, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle came up large and the Sixers’ defense imposed their will on Toronto.

Josh Richardson missed his sixth straight game with right hamstring tightness.

With the win, the Sixers remain unbeaten at home at 12-0 and improve to 17-7 overall. They host the Nuggets Tuesday night.

Here are observations from the win.

Steady Ben, Jo struggles

Joel Embiid was not doubled on his first touch … so he naturally turned it over. To Embiid’s credit, he didn’t let a tough start get to him. He was under control, handling double teams and taking what the game gave him. When Marc Gasol picked up his second foul, it allowed Embiid to get some looks against Serge Ibaka, which opened things up. With the Sixers out to a big lead in the fourth, Toronto used full-court pressure and Embiid struggled with it.

While a lot of attention has been paid to Embiid’s struggles against Toronto, let’s not forget that Simmons had his issues in the last matchup — even with Kawhi Leonard gone. Simmons also got off to a shaky start, looking like he was playing a little rushed. He started to let the game come to him a bit and settled in.

Embiid’s numbers weren’t mind-blowing (10 points, eight rebounds, six assists), but up until that weird fourth-quarter stretch, he didn’t force anything and his teammates made the Raptors pay.

Despite the five turnovers, Simmons had a strong overall game, flirting with a triple-double with 16 points, 11 rebounds and  nine assists.

In general, the Sixers just seemed to handle the Raptors’ ball pressure significantly better — fourth quarter excluded — than they have in games past. A strong game from three-point range (14 of 32) also helped that cause.

Tobias makes Raptors pay

The Sixers have constantly talked about exploiting mismatches this season with their size. With the Raptors starting two smaller guards in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, there was bound to be a matchup they could exploit. 

Early on, it was Harris who was by far the Sixers’ most aggressive player in attacking Lowry. In a game where the Sixers did a lot of over-passing, Harris did not. The most impressive thing about Harris’ start was the way that he attacked the rim — even when Ibaka was in the game.

With head coach Nick Nurse’s game plan to take Embiid and Simmons out of the picture as much as possible, it was on the Sixers’ supporting cast to make them pay. Harris did just that with a game-high 26 points on 4 of 8 from three and 10 of 22 overall.

Bully ball defense

The most impressive thing from the Sixers was their defense, using their length to frustrate and challenge Toronto.

Brett Brown switched up the matchups, starting the game with Al Horford on Pascal Siakam and Simmons on Kyle Lowry. Still, it was Simmons’ defensive versatility that stood out. He did well in his matchups against Siakam, who is playing at an elite level (the Sixers held him to 16 points on 7 of 18). He was also the one that was able to draw Gasol’s second foul after he was switched onto the center in the post.

You’d be hard pressed to find many — if any — players that are better than Simmons when it comes to switching one through five.

The Sixers’ defense was also big in leading to offense and easy transition looks.

This play by Horford, where the Raptors essentially had a 3-on-1 fast break, was mighty impressive and led to a transition bucket.

In general, Horford was strong in this one. With how unequipped the Sixers were at the backup center position against Toronto last postseason, it was evident the impact Horford had Sunday.

The rook continues to pass every test

Thybulle was questionable heading into this one with a sprained right ankle, but there was nothing questionable about his play.

He frustrated Lowry at every opportunity, continuing to excel at his “rearview” contests and making life miserable for his opponents. He also drew an offensive foul on Ibaka while he was screening for Lowry. The 22-year-old is getting better at walking that fine line defensively.

And what Thybulle game would be complete without a steal highlight? This was one of his three on the night.

He also continues to make shots, like this one he hit at the buzzer at the end of the first quarter which turned into a four-point play.

He also nailed two big threes in the third quarter to extend the Sixers’ lead to 18. He made a rookie career-high 5 of 8 from three and set a new high mark with 20 points. This may have been the biggest test for Thybulle this season, and he passed with flying colors.

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Sixers vs. Raptors: 3 storylines to watch and how to live stream the game

Sixers vs. Raptors: 3 storylines to watch and how to live stream the game

The Raptors (15-6) return to the Wells Fargo Center for the first time since Game 6 last postseason to take on the Sixers (16-7).

Joel Embiid (left hip contusion) will return to the lineup and look to overcome his previous struggles against Marc Gasol and Toronto. Rookie Matisse Thybulle is listed as questionable after rolling his right ankle in last night's win over the Cavs. He will go through pregame warmups before determining his status, per a team source.

The Sixers will again be without Josh Richardson, who will miss his sixth straight game with right hamstring tightness. Richardson did participate in full-court activity Saturday, but the team continues to exercise caution so early in the season.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 6 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch for tonight's game:

Embiid’s boogeyman

Embiid has struggled mightily against Gasol and the Raptors in his career, but nothing compared to the first scoreless game of his NBA career back on Nov. 15 in Toronto. In six career regular-season games against Gasol, Embiid is averaging just 11.7 points a game and shooting below 30 percent. 

Head coach Nick Nurse deployed a different strategy last month than he did during the seven-game series between these two teams. Embiid faced double teams fairly often in the postseason, but in the last matchup, the Raptors had an extra player on Embiid on every single post touch. Nurse was daring the other Sixers to beat them — and they didn’t.

Embiid has done better handling double teams in general this season. This will be an interesting test.

Simmons shooting

For the first couple years of Ben Simmons’ career, Brett Brown has been fairly diplomatic when discussing his All-Star point guard’s shot.

After Simmons hit his second career three Saturday night, Brown was much blunter.

This is what I want, OK — you can pass this along to his agent, his family and his friends and to him — I want a three-point shot a game, minimum. The pull-up twos, I'm fine with whenever he's open but I'm interested in the three-point shot. And the mentality that he has where he's turning corners and taking that long step, that gather step and bringing his shoulders to the rim and trying to dunk or finish tight, will equal higher efficiency or getting fouled. That's the world that interests me the most — those two things. And when you say, 'OK, what's the number?' I immediately throw out eight [free throws]. For whatever reason, I'm not sure, but that's a number that I think is attainable.

It was against a bad basketball team, but it still provided a blueprint for how Simmons should be playing and attacking. Embiid needs all the help he can get.

Looking to stay perfect … but it won’t be easy

The Sixers are a sparkling 11-0 at home, but they’re facing an opponent that’s played well on the road. The Raptors are 6-4 away from Scotiabank Arena.

Philly native Kyle Lowry has returned to the lineup. While Toronto has lost the two games since, Lowry has been playing well. Kawhi Leonard is in L.A. but this Raptors team is still mighty dangerous in general. Pascal Siakam is playing at a superstar level while Fred VanVleet has put up career-best numbers as a starter.

The biggest thing will be slowing down Toronto’s three-point shooting. The Raptors are the second-best team percentage wise in the league while hoisting a healthy amount beyond the arc. Six of their regulars are shooting 37 percent or better from distance. Meanwhile the Sixers are allowing the fewest threes per game.

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