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Good Luck Getting Through The Sixers' Forest Of Arms

Photo: Drew Hallowell (Getty)

Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle had three points, one rebound, and one assist in 22 minutes during his NBA debut Wednesday night, and yet he received a glowing postgame interview on the arena floor after his team beat the Celtics on opening night. Why? Because he threw sand in the gears of his opponents’ offense whenever he was on the floor.

Thybulle bullied C’s guard Kemba Walker into submission a few times—the first and second plays in this montage are quite rude—and looked completely comfortable against former all-stars in his first-ever minutes of NBA action. Thybulle’s teammates have compared him to Kawhi Leonard and Robert Covington, which is maybe a little overboard, though it’s perhaps warranted, since he turned Walker into a quivering pile of goo.

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Thybulle approaches the work of defense like setting up an ambush. He regularly gives up an unusual amount of space, or at least appears to do so, in order to bait a ballhandler into making the wrong pass. Once he successfully manipulates opponents into playing his game, he can use his 7-foot-1 wingspan and excellent instincts. It worked in college, and clearly it works in the NBA.

Now here’s the scary part: Thybulle is maybe Philadelphia’s fourth-best defender.

The Sixers showed why they’ll be a formidable defense last night against Boston, holding the Celtics to 36.7 percent shooting from the floor and snuffing out Walker for 12 points on 4-for-18 shooting. That would have been Boston’s lowest shooting mark of the 2018-19 season, and it managed 93 points largely because of the Sixers’ 34 fouls, which also would have been a season-high for the previous season. They also out-rebounded Boston by 21. This is how the Sixers want to win.

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The foundational principle of the Sixers’ defense is size. Joel Embiid and Al Horford are two of the biggest and best defenders in the game, and new de facto defensive coordinator Ime Udoka has tailored his scheme around his twin centers. As he explained in the offseason, his goal is to get Sixers’ defenders up in opponents’ faces and make them uncomfortable with intense pressure. The Sixers’ lack of quickness on the perimeter hurt them last season, and they created 12.7 turnovers per game (27th in the NBA). Now, they can afford to be aggressive, since every starter is oversized for his position.

If a ballhandler gets past Ben Simmons (the tallest point guard in the NBA), Tobias Harris (who has a 6-foot-11 wingspan), Josh Richardson (a bulldog), or even a big man switched onto them, they still have to contend with a wall of meat. No team in the NBA, not even the Bucks, boasts a fortress of size like the Sixers. Scoring on them means avoiding a thicket of long arms. Richardson is the smallest starter. This is what he did to Gordon Hayward after getting shouldered in the chest.

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Celtics head coach Brad Stevens’s early game plan was built around getting Embiid into space on switches and letting his guards use their speed advantage to get around the big guy. The Sixers are ready for that to happen more often. One of the benefits of having someone like Horford behind Embiid is that it allows Embiid to get more aggressive and close out the three-point line, rather than worry about his man blowing by him. That’s part of Udoka’s “corral blitz” scheme, and why Embiid posted a defensive rating of 72.5 in the victory. He won’t do that every night, but the Sixers are so deep that he won’t need to.

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