The key to the 76ers' chances in their first-round series against the Boston Celtics could prove to be right in front of them. Just one game into the series, rookie Matisse Thybulle made a strong case to be put into the starting lineup.
The 76ers, being without their top defender Ben Simmons, are struggling to find the best way to defend Boston's starting lineup. One of the key questions was who would be tasked with guarding Jayson Tatum, Boston's leading scorer. Head coach Brett Brown went with Josh Richardson in Game 1, but that matchup did not find much success. Tatum scored 32 points en route to leading the Celtics to a 1-0 series lead.
Thybulle came off the bench in Game 1 and proved to be the 76ers' best option defensively against Tatum. Tatum, when guarded by Thybulle, scored just four points on 2-of-9 shooting compared to 28 points on 8-of-12 shooting when guarded by anyone else.
Brown spoke glowingly of Thybulle's defensive performance in Game 1:
"I think he did a really good job,” Brown said. “I think that as a young player, a rookie to come in and have that type of assignment with really one of the league’s just incredibly improved iso players that can create shots in so many ways, I thought that he did a really good job. A few times you wish schematically, without getting into coach speak, that we tried to execute some of the things we were doing a little better. But I thought the discipline he showed of not being lifted, the discipline he showed of just trying to level straight line drives and show his hands and not get in foul trouble, I thought he was excellent."
Thybulle plays a reckless, aggressive style of defense which causes him to sometimes get into foul trouble. However, he committed only three fouls in 32 minutes off the bench in Game 1.
The solution to the 76ers' defensive issues against Boston is clear: move Thybulle to the starting lineup and have him shadow Tatum throughout the game. Thybulle would presumably take Al Horford's spot in the starting lineup, which would immediately bring two positives for the 76ers. It would allow Thybulle to match up against Tatum, and it would allow Richardson to guard either Kemba Walker or Jaylen Brown. Horford struggled guarding Brown in Game 1 to the tune of allowing Brown to score 29 points. Having Richardson on Brown would be a much better defensive matchup for the 76ers.
However, Brown seemed unwilling to make changes to the starting lineup after Game 1.
"For the most part, short of this starting group, that’s how it plays out,” Brown said. “When you look at [Josh Richardson’s] minutes and Matisse’s minutes, they’re completely mirrored to Kemba [Walker] and Jayson’s. I think that to blow up the starting five in exchange for doing that, I’m not prepared to say that’s what’s going to happen. I look forward to going back and watching the tape and considering that option. But at the moment, I feel like it’s just something I want to think more about, based on what I see on the tape."
The 76ers want to utilize their size advantage against Boston by keeping Horford in the starting lineup. However, the defensive liability is just too great against a smaller, quicker team like the Celtics. Moving Thybulle to the starting lineup is the clear move that needs to be made heading into Game 2.
It took Brown too long to make any necessary adjustments the last time these two teams matched up in the playoffs. Let's hope that history does not repeat this year.