Despite being 15-6 and 10-0 at Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers have the worst offensive rating in the NBA in fourth quarters (101.6). They scored only 18 points in the final period of a 103-94 win Monday night over the Jazz, a game they led by as many as 26 points.
“I get a kick out of it,” Brett Brown said. “I ask myself sometimes the question, too — who’s the closer? And what we should all admit is we have options. We have a variety of people on a given night that you might be able to go to and through.”
The notion that the Sixers have viable offensive options they can rely on late is, after 21 games, a bit tenuous. The idea that they have multiple players who can guard an opponent’s best scorer, though, is much easier to buy.
Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle shared the defensive duties on Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and held him to 18 points on 6 for 19 shooting. Mitchell and the Jazz were playing the second game of a back-to-back and the fifth game of a road trip, so that likely had something to do with his off night. But Simmons and Thybulle played a significant role, too.
Thybulle swiped three steals and now has 29, the most among rookies, while Simmons recorded four and has 46, the most in the NBA.
They both savor the chance to defend the opposition’s top threat.
“I just love guarding great players,” Simmons said. “It's one of those things where I take that challenge upon myself. I wanted to guard Joe [Ingles] a little bit too, so I really don't mind who I'm put on. It's always going to be a challenge, so I enjoy it.”
Thybulle’s minutes have fluctuated early in his rookie season. With Josh Richardson out for a third straight game because of right hamstring tightness — a team spokesperson called his absence “precautionary” and said the Sixers hope he will be able to return within the next couple of games — there was more of an opening for Thybulle against the Jazz.
Brown seemed to be telling himself pregame that he needed to give his rookie a little more leash.
“At times I should have a higher tolerance level for his wild decisions defensively,” he said.
About three hours later, Brown gave Thybulle an extended run in the second quarter, then inserted him into the lineup for the start of the second half in place of Furkan Korkmaz and put him on Mitchell.
Thybulle was grateful for the opportunity to defend Utah’s top scorer, who entered Monday night averaging 24.9 points per game.
“Yeah, that’s why we love basketball, just the competitive nature of it,” he said. “To be given the challenge of guarding the other team’s best player is an honor in and of itself, but then also the challenge of it is exciting for me, just as a competitor.”
Brown can put up with the occasional unwise gamble or overeager foul by Thybulle when the rookie is knocking down outside shots and filling a simple “3-and-D” role. Thybulle, after making all three of his three-point attempts Monday, is 16 for 37 (43.2 percent) from long range.
“I thought that he played more tame,” Brown said. “I thought that he took the shots that he should have shot — under-control shots, his shots. And I thought that he made some defensive plays that were timely. It’s still really interesting for me to see how much ground he covers and getting fingernails on balls and hands on balls.”
For Thybulle and the Sixers, it remains to be seen if all those skills will travel. The Sixers’ unbeaten home mark is in sharp contrast to their 5-6 road record, and the disparity in Thybulle’s performances is especially stark.
He’s shot 12 for 16 from three at home, 4 of 21 on the road.
And, when Richardson returns, Thybulle will perhaps again need to acclimate to uneven playing time — although Brown did say he “sure is still going to play.”
He insists that his sporadic usage hasn't bothered him.
“I’ve just chalked it up to being a rookie,” he said. “I just go with the flow, I take what I get and try to make the most of what I have out there.”
Brown admitted Monday that he didn’t expect to have Thybulle be able to hang with and sometimes frustrate opposing perimeter scorers the way he has as a rookie.
“… He has surprised me. It doesn’t entirely surprise me because of what you could see deflection-wise and athletically, that he’s able to do some things in that regard. His shot has surprised me. And I think that the human being, he’s just elite. He’s a great person and he’s a legitimate teammate, a prideful learner. That side of it I think is as important as the athletic side. I think the partnership equals you can expedite improvement quicker, maybe, then with most.”
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