Warriors head coach Steve Kerr made a comment about Stephen Curry before Golden State’s loss Saturday night to the Sixers that caught the ear.
Not because it was brash or boastful or even a brilliant observation. It stood out because it rang true.
“It’s amazing how much he’s impacted the game both strategically and artistically,” Kerr said.
There might not be a more artistic defender in the NBA at the moment than the guy who guarded Curry.
Matisse Thybulle, who was named after French painter Henri Matisse, is passionate and talented as a photographer and videographer. However one defines art, there’s no doubt Thybulle is an artist away from his profession of basketball.
For him, Saturday night was about the beauty in spoilage. Curry had a shot to break Ray Allen’s career three-point record of 2,973, a big number in a sport full of them. Ten more threes would do it. The lower bowl of the arena was saturated with No. 30 Warriors jerseys about two hours before tip-off, fans waiting to see Curry step on the floor, to ask him for an autograph, to shriek his name and watch him sink jumpers from the Sixers’ logo like a kid beginning a backyard game of HORSE with an easy one.
Few seemed concerned about the man who’d defend Curry.
Like the game’s special scorers, Curry is a master of determining his own fate. He just has too many skills and too many options for the defender to matter; the two-time MVP, three-time champion and seven-time All-Star inevitably shakes or wriggles free to find a shot. And even if it’s not the look he first intended and there happens to be one defender on his hip and another breathing on his neck, the improvisation is a huge part of the fun. The ball has a great chance of going in regardless.
Playing against Thybulle is different. He started in Danny Green’s usual place and became the first player to ever block multiple Curry three-pointers in a game, per ESPN Stats & Info. Curry, who finished with 18 points on 6-for-20 shooting (3 for 14 from three-point range), went 2 for 13 when defended by Thybulle.
Those numbers sound about right given how Curry pounced as soon as the University of Washington product picked up his third foul late in the second quarter. Tyrese Maxey looked like a vulnerable 21-year-old whose effort level was irrelevant in those two minutes and 26 seconds Thybulle had to sit and watch.
Joel Embiid called Thybulle “probably the best perimeter defender in the league” and said he has a chance to win Defensive Player of the Year.
“I give Thybulle credit,” Kerr told reporters after the game, per The Athletic’s Anthony Slater. “I thought he was fantastic defensively. He’s a rare combination of length and athleticism and brains. He did as good a job on Steph as anybody I’ve seen in a long time.”
Told of Kerr’s comment and asked for a self-assessment, Thybulle didn’t think he was the best person to answer the question.
“It’s hard to even say, because I kind of black out to a certain degree," Thybulle said. “It was just being in the moment for every moment — following him, trailing him, and just trying to wreak as much havoc, make it as uncomfortable as possible for him.
“So I don’t remember enough of the game to give you an honest opinion on how I think I did. I’m just really happy we won and happy he didn’t break the record — at least against us. I hope he breaks it at some point.”
Though Thybulle’s words were humble, clearly, they also captured who he is. Defense to him is about gambles and disruption, flying limbs and precognition.
That’s all been sharpened over the years, even if it comes across as a core part of Thybulle’s being.
“My dad always preached defense,” Thybulle said back in May. “He didn’t really understand basketball that well at first when I started playing, and then he became a referee, taught himself the game and just realized, even at a young age, whatever guys could guard well always had a place on every team. He just preached that to me and for whatever reason, I had a knack for it and it just all kind of fell into place.”
Though he spoke Saturday about the “mental discipline” of tailing Curry, gritting through screens and living with the occasional failure, Thybulle framed his extraordinary success as putting brush to canvas and waking up hours later.
“I just read and react,” he said. “It’s just instincts; I just play the game intuitively. And these things just happen. They come out of me, and it’s hard for me to even take credit for it and really soak it all in.
“I’m still trying to process, what did I just do out there? I’m playing the game I love like I’ve been playing it since I was a kid. ... Just trying to enjoy every moment.”