Sixers

As Thybulle seeks balance, unofficial coach Green is glad to guide him

Sixers

At this point, asking for Matisse Thybulle comparisons might not be worthwhile. 

Danny Green’s answer last year could be the best yet, though.

“He reminds me of a better me,” Green said.

Thybulle’s defensive style is reminiscent of other sports, or even its own sport. Long limbs jolt into action, baffle opposing stars, and delight teammates and fans. So, while there are indeed similarities between Green and Thybulle — both fall somewhere on the 3-and-D wing spectrum, for instance — the two aren’t exactly identical. 

One difference is age, as Thybulle noted when explaining the challenges of coming in and out as a late-game defensive substitute. 

“It can be hard because of the amount of time between when I sub out and those last three minutes of the game when I’m going back and forth,” the 25-year-old said last week. “So, just being mentally engaged and physically keeping myself warm — because I don’t get a chance to go in there and warm up. I get subbed in to go stop the best player on the court from scoring. It’s just about being locked in mentally. 

“Danny’s a good vet and being the old man that he is, he’s always encouraging me to stay warm and be ready to go back in.”

Does Green, 34, object to the “old man” label? 

“I don’t fully object,” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia in an interview. “I’m not old old, but I am one of the older guys in this league and I know the way my body is set up, I’ve got to keep the engine going. … For him, it’s easy. When they late-game sub, he doesn’t have to worry about being cold. He’s ready to go because he’s young. I remember those days.

 

“But I still tell him, ‘Stay warm, stay ready, stay locked in, because we’re going to need you down the stretch for a stop. It’s going to be me, you, or both of us, so be ready to go.’ In that sense, yes. When it comes to sitting on the bench for a long time and being ready to come back in the game, yes, I’m old.”

Green is not Udonis Haslem, the Heat’s 41-year-old forward with a mere 252 minutes over the past five seasons. Though Thybulle has taken his spot in the Sixers’ first-choice starting lineup, he’s still a rotation regular. But calling him an unofficial member of Sixers head coach Doc Rivers’ staff seems fair enough. 

When Green is on the bench, there’s not much silent contemplation. He’s always happy to share insights with Thybulle.

“All the time — when he wants,” Green said. “I know there’s a lot of people on him a lot of times, so sometimes I just leave him alone. But when he comes to me, he listens. He’ll come to me and ask, and I’ll give him my advice. 

“Every time I get a chance, I tell him, ‘Yo, great activity’ —  every timeout. The coaches will tell him one thing, and obviously I try to give him praise for some of the things he does do. Some mistakes and things, I’ll err on the side of, ‘I’d rather it be that type of aggression than the other way.’ I’m always talking to him and mostly just encouraging him and giving him confidence to do what he does, because he’s very good at what he does.”

Seeking balance 

Thybullle made the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team playing just 20 minutes per game by being a gifted gambler.

The rearview blocks and surprising steals are great for the Sixers, but they don’t guarantee Thybulle heavy minutes. Foul trouble remains an obstacle, as does Rivers’ understandable reluctance to use him as a two-way player down the stretch of games. Since James Harden’s debut on Feb. 25, Thybulle has appeared in each of the Sixers’ 14 games but only played 41 total minutes in fourth quarters. 

“Well, the No. 1 thing is he has to be dynamic defensively every night,” Rivers said on Feb. 14, “because if he isn’t, then it’s hard to play him, right? It’s the same thing with an offensive player. I had Lou Williams. If Lou Williams didn’t score, why would I have him on the floor? So just look at that in reverse. And when Matisse is really effective defensively, even if they’re helping off of him, I think he gives us enough that we can still be good.”

 

Thybulle possesses all the necessary tools to make game-turning defensive plays, but Green aims to steer him in the right directions. 

“It depends on who we’re playing,” Green said. “And I just give him tips on how to guard certain guys I’ve been guarding for a long time. I’ll tell him, ‘This guy is very hard right, make sure you shade him left. … On this (player), just don’t go for fakes. Stay down. He’s going to pump fake you.’ And in some games, I’ll just be like, ‘Do what you do.’ In other games, I’ll be like, ‘Take less risks today. You can’t gamble as much as you would like to.’ But at the end of the day, we want him to be him. And he’s very good at what he does — he’s good at recovering. But it goes game to game (based on) personnel. 

“It’s finding a balance, and he’s learning. It’s going to take growing pains and going through it. And obviously last year in the playoffs he had a couple incidents, couple fouls. He’ll learn from that, grow from the mistakes down the stretch. … The only way you learn sometimes is by making a big mistake. It’s OK, especially during this time of the year, until we get to the playoffs and then it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to fix that mistake.’ But the biggest thing is trying to get him to find that balance and talk him through it.”

One of the simpler tasks on Thybulle’s postseason plate will be avoiding damaging fouls.

Easier said than done, but that applies both to first-quarter reaches that force unplanned rotation changes and fourth-quarter overzealousness like Thybulle’s foul on a Kevin Huerter three-point attempt late in the Sixers’ Game 7 loss to the Hawks last season.

“I tell him every time, ‘Just don’t get in foul trouble, because we need you.’ I don’t want to be coming in too early sometimes,” Green said with a laugh. “But I just tell him, ‘You’ve got to feel the game out. Obviously I want you to be aggressive, be physical, but we’re going to need you defensively, especially down the stretch, so be careful about how you use your fouls early. Save your first two until the first quarter is over — try to anyway.’ 

“But it’s a lot easier from the sideline, seeing how they’re calling it. … I’ve gotten in foul trouble early because you’re out there trying to be physical, trying to play defense, and they give you cheap, quick ones. It happens. But at the end of the day, you’ve just got to feel it out as you’re out there. You can talk to referees in a certain way. He’s learning the referees, the system, the league and how it’s being called. Day in and day out it’s going to be different, but he’s just going to have to adapt and adjust to it. He’s done a great job so far; he’s done better than I have. I know there were times I’d get in foul trouble early — a lot in my early career. So he’s done a great job.”

 

Any ways to boost the odds of a more favorable whistle?

“Obviously communicating,” Green said, “and asking (the officials) what you did wrong is the biggest thing. 'What did you see? What did I do wrong? Can you check that for me? I think you missed it.’ … Yelling at them is not the way to get them to be on your side. So just talking through it and helping them be more on your side. Sometimes it’ll help, sometimes it may not. But they’re humans just like us. If you cuss them out or tell them they’re wrong, it’s usually going to go in the opposite direction.”

Profanity-packed tirades have never been Thybulle’s cup of tea, but perhaps Green’s coaching will very slightly improve his chances on a pivotal, borderline call. Becoming a veteran known for (legally) pulling off impossible plays likely won’t hurt, too. 

Expertise next to stars 

The Sixers’ hope is that Harden elevates Thybulle offensively.

Thus far, it doesn’t seem a ludicrous notion. Thybulle has 33 made field goals since the 10-time All-Star’s debut and Harden has assisted on 19 of them. When the pair have shared the court, the Sixers’ offensive rating is 120.4 and their net rating is plus-15.7, per Cleaning the Glass. 

A large chunk of that early team success can be attributed to meshing natural talents. Alongside stars that draw consistent double teams and reward open men, Thybulle’s cutting and his screening and rolling matter more. Joel Embiid’s continued growth as a passer is also significant.  

Of course, a double drag action that ends with a Thybulle dunk or a Harden-to-Thybulle alley-oop off of a smart baseline cut are ideal outcomes. But any time Thybulle’s defender is occupied with him instead of focused on his All-Star teammates, it’s a welcome sight for the Sixers. 

Green knows from experience that optimizing a role player’s job isn’t an effortless process. He thinks candor tends to help.

“Yes,” Green said. “‘Do you want me to come up here? Do you want me to set a screen here? Do you want me to stay spaced?’ I remember that early with Manu (Ginobili) and Tony (Parker): ‘Do you want me to stay here? Do you want me to slide up?’ The better familiarity, the better chemistry you get with those guys, the more comfortable you are asking questions and getting a feel for what they like. Also, what the coaching staff likes, too. So it’s a little bit of both. You’ve got to figure out both, and a lot of times it’s just communication.”

 

As for Harden, Thybulle’s impression is that the 32-year-old doesn’t leave a lot unsaid.

“He’s a very vocal leader,” Thybulle said. “He has the ability to call people out for what they’re not doing, which I think is an earned right in the NBA. And he of course has earned it. So having that kind of vocal leadership where he can tell Joel, ‘Yo, I need you to roll on these’ … that accountability, I think, is huge. And I feel like that’s always a characteristic of winning teams."

Faith in the future 

When Thybulle attempts wide-open jumpers, defenses usually don’t mind. On three-point tries with the closest defender six or more feet away, he’s at 28.0 percent this season. 

In Green’s view, Thybulle doesn’t need to dramatically revamp his shot.

“I know he’s capable because I’ve seen him do it to us in the summertime,” Green said. “He does it to me when I guard him. I can’t go under screens because he’ll hit shots. So it’s not like he’s not capable; he’s very capable. It’s more so just confidence with him and in this league. 

“His mechanics are fine. He has a good set, good feet, base, balance. His ball looks good. I just encourage him to stay confident and shoot it when you’re open — and take your time; you’ve got a lot of time. Even if you don’t shoot it, give the defense a chance to run at you and close out by taking a breath and looking at the rim.”

One impressive component of Green’s game is the nuances of shot preparation — subtle adjustments with footwork and rhythm to ensure he's ready to fire. But he doesn’t think that’s especially relevant at the moment for Thybulle.

“He’s not that type of shooter right now,” Green said. “He doesn’t have to be because nobody’s running at him, chasing him off the line. … A lot of teams are going to dare you. And a lot of times you’ll be wide open because of the double teams that Joel and James bring. So you’ve got a lot of time. Just take your time and let it fly. We trust in you and believe in you.”

 

Indeed, every single aspect of Green’s knowledge base isn’t directly applicable with Thybulle. Much of the University of Washington product’s offensive role has been inside the arc. He’s often been stationed in the dunker spot and cut into the lane on Embiid post-ups. Thybulle also said last week that the Sixers’ coaching staff has encouraged him to crash the offensive glass with higher frequency. 

“He’s been great at it, just being active and cutting,” Green said. “And knowing the balance as well — when to cut, when not to cut, when to space. Since Ben (Simmons) has been normally the dunker spot guy, (Matisse has) been there and been able to finish around the rim — but also be a cutter, and also space out when we need him to. I just like it when he’s confident, when he’s spacing and he takes his three-ball, regardless of if he misses or not.

“But he’s got to find a balance because ... sometimes we need him as a cutter, sometimes we need him in the dunker. But he’s doing a really good job of mixing it up. I think for me, I would like him to space a little more than he has. I think sometimes he cuts too much. But James is figuring it out. ... James is going to figure out when they like him to cut. It’s all about the group that you’re with, and it’s been working so far for him.”

If Green wins his fourth NBA championship as a Sixer, Thybulle figures to play an integral part. 

Whether or not that happens, there’s clear mutual appreciation and affection between two wings at different stages of their careers.

“Danny cut his finger open in the middle of a game and he still returned to the bench to talk guys up and coach guys,” Thybulle said. “I think that’s just the epitome of Danny — that willingness and ability to have something to say and be encouraging to guys. Coaching from the bench, he’s a huge asset for us.”

What will Thybulle’s game look like when he’s Green’s age?

Rivers has told Green he believes he'll become a coach. While Green said at his exit interview last year that he wasn’t on board with the idea, perhaps he’ll be on the sidelines in an official capacity when Thybulle is an "old man" by NBA standards.

“I think he’s going to be a special player in this league, especially with how he works and with how artistic and unique he is — how his mind works," Green said. “But he’s got a lot of room for growth. … What did Michael Jordan say? ‘The ceiling is the roof.’

“With him, the sky’s the limit, man. He has a lot of potential. He can grow into a shooter. … He’s still just learning. His reflexes are unbelievable — cat-like reflexes. And with his athletic ability, he can get to any shot and steal any basketball. Once he learns how to balance himself, I think he can be Defensive Player of the Year.”