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Bourguet Breakdown: Devin Booker vs. Matisse Thybulle has become one of the NBA's best individual battles

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
February 9, 2022

Over the last few seasons, Devin Booker has done everything but complete the paperwork for his part-ownership stake of the Philadelphia 76ers. During his seven years in the league, Booker’s career average of 29.3 points per game against the Sixers is higher than his scoring mark against any other NBA franchise.

He’s shot 48.5 percent from the field in those 13 meetings, nailed 45.1 percent of his triples and chipped in 4.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game for good measure. Tuesday’s impressive win in Philly moved Booker to 7-6 all-time against the 76ers, including 5-0 over the last three seasons.

For all intents and purposes, Devin Booker lives up to his trademark billing as a baby-faced assassin whenever he sees the Sixers’ red, white and blue.

However, as dominant as Book was in their latest clash, finishing with 35 points on 11-of-23 shooting, this showdown between two of the top teams in their respective conferences also featured a fascinating individual battle — one that’s built on mutual respect and is increasingly becoming appointment viewing with each new rendition.

Devin Booker versus Matisse Thybulle is rapidly growing into the NBA equivalent of “unstoppable force meets immovable object.” They’re two masters of their respective crafts, and with both being under the age of 25, this recurring clash of titans won’t be going away anytime soon.

Aside from Thybully earning an All-Defensive Second Team selection in just his second season last year — while only playing 20 minutes per game, no less — Monty Williams put his defensive prowess into perspective when he revealed that he and assistant coach Kevin Young spent time watching film on the young Sixer the morning of the game.

That’s quite a compliment for a third-year player trying to slow down a three-time All-Star, especially when Thybulle was still listed as questionable.

“Defensively, he’s one of the better on-ball, on-body defenders that’s in the league,” Williams said. “A lot of guys can defend on the ball when a guy has the ball, but he’s one of those guys that can defend on the body. When a primetime player doesn’t have the ball, he’s pretty good in that environment.”

So who has the upper hand in this battle within the war? How does Booker find success against one of the NBA’s most stifling defenders, and where does Thybulle limit one of the league’s top scorers? For the latest Bourguet Breakdown, we’re going to dive into all of the tape of Booker versus Thybulle over the last three years and sort it out.

Devin Booker vs. Matisse Thybulle

Remember how Booker has a 5-0 record against the 76ers over the last three seasons? Well, this is Thybulle’s third year in the league.

He took his licks early on in this matchup, spending limited time on Book coming off the bench. To be fair, though, his progression into an All-Defensive Second Team selection has spared the Sixers from having to watch Ben Simmons get filleted alive every time the Suns star comes to town.

(Seriously, it’s almost comical how much Booker relishes torching Simmons — who used to draw the main assignment before his Sixers sabbatical — any time he’s even in the vicinity. We can’t imagine why that is.)

A look at Booker’s numbers over those last five meetings with Thybulle on the court doesn’t exactly paint the picture of an evenly-matched rivalry:

  • Nov. 4, 2019: 40 points, 3 assists, 15-19 FG, 3-4 3P, 7-7 FT, +3, Suns win 114-109
  • Aug. 11, 2020: 35 points, 7 assists, 11-24 FG, 2-4 3P, 11-12 FT, +14, Suns win 130-117
  • Feb. 13, 2021: 36 points, 4 assists, 14-23 FG, 3-5 3P, 5-6 FT, +1, Suns win 120-111
  • April 21, 2021: 19 points, 7 assists, 6-14 FG, 0-3 3P, 7-8 FT, -4, Suns win 116-113
  • Feb. 8, 2022: 35 points, 3 assists, 11-23 FG, 3-8 3P, 10-11 FT, +13, Suns win 114-109

All in all, Booker has put up a whopping 33.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game on scorching .553/.458/.909 shooting splits on Philly since Thybulle entered the league. However, those numbers lack context.

For starters, Thybulle only played 5 minutes in his first game against the Suns as a rookie. He played 15 minutes in another matchup, and it was only in their last two entanglements that he was given the primary assignment of defending Booker.

A deeper dive shows the impact Thybulle’s smothering defense has had on Booker’s efficiency. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, he’s been one of the league’s most reliable Book stoppers:

  • Booker defended by Thybulle (2021-22): 8:56 minutes, 47.2 partial possessions, 14 points, 2 assists, 5-13 FG, 1-5 3P, 3-4 FT
  • Booker defended by Thybulle (2020-21): 10:24 minutes, 37.9 partial possessions, 12 points, 5 assists, 4-12 FG, 0-3 3P, 4-4 FT
  • Booker defended by Thybulle (2019-20): 5:01 minutes, 26.3 partial possessions, 11 points, 2 assists, 4-7 FG, 1-2 3P, 2-3 FT

So overall, when Booker has been defended by Thybulle in his career, he’s been limited to 34 points and 9 assists on 13-of-32 shooting (40.6 percent) in about 24 minutes.

“That’s his job, to go out there and stop dynamic scorers, so he gets that task each and every night and he’s really good at it,” Booker said. “I think his job is to make sure nobody gets comfortable. I think that’s all you can do in this league when you’re playing against prolific scorers is just try to slow ’em down and make it tough on ’em. And he’s done that countless numbers of times.”

Devin Booker’s tricks for an elite defender

What he lacks in offensive skill, Thybulle makes up for as one of the NBA’s great playmakers on the defensive end.

“Matisse is an elite, elite defender in this league,” teammate Andre Drummond gushed. “He takes pride in his job and he’s very, very good at it and very, very helpful for our team when we do play those guys — the Devin Bookers, the Steph Currys. I could go on and list the guys that are very, very good scorers, and he’s able to give them a run for their money.”

Heading into Tuesday’s game, Thybulle ranked in the 97th percentile in Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus and was third in the entire league in Defensive RAPTOR. If advanced metrics aren’t your cup of tea, he more than passes the eye test when it comes to hounding an elite off-the-dribble scorer like Booker:

To combat that, and especially in their earlier meetings where Thybulle wasn’t as strong as he needed to be to hang with such a seasoned scorer, Booker made a habit of targeting easy buckets using his strength.

Off the ball, it looked like quick seals with a feed over the top:

With the ball in his hands, Book weaves his way around screens and keeps Thybulle in jail. If Booker ever gets a step on his defender, he’s one of the NBA’s best at keeping him on his hip and making the defense pay:

The best example was last year’s April meeting, when Thybulle had limited Book to 3-of-11 shooting until the final two minutes.

At that point, Booker finished the game making his last three shots and scoring 8 points over that span…including this backbreaking bucket where he had Thybulle glued to his hip the entire time:

“Just trying to play my game, take the best available shot, but obviously aware that he’s chasing over screens, trying to get those blocks,” Booker said of the matchup. “He never gives up on a play. I think that’s what separates him from a lot of defenders is he’s in that position, he makes a lot of recovery plays with his length and his athletic ability.”

Booker brings up a key point though: No shot, pass or dribble is safe with Thybulle in relentless pursuit.

Matisse Thybulle’s relentless defense and closing speed

Matisse Thybulle has grown over the years, and it’s not just smart positional defense or contesting shots that makes him difficult to score on. The term “playmaker” usually only applies to offense, and when it’s associated with defense, the first impulse is to think of football.

But Thybulle is a true defensive playmaker with his penchant for racking up steals and blocks. There are only four players averaging more “stocks” (steals plus blocks) per 36 minutes this season, and all of them are big men: Myles Turner, Jaren Jackson Jr., Isaiah Hartenstein and Drummond.

The Step Back’s Ian Levy also unearthed this gem: Despite only playing 169 games in his career, he’s already recorded 25 games with at least two blocks and two steals, which is more than Luol Deng, Victor Oladipo, Matt Barnes or Gary Payton had in their entire careers.

“Matisse is in a category of his own,” Drummond said. “He’s such a smart, smart guy, man. Defensively, the things that he does, you just gotta say ‘wow’ sometimes. Like how does he recover so quickly, and how was he able to block these jump shots that are looking like they’re about to go in?”

Booker and the Suns have plenty of experience in this regard. In their last two meetings alone, Book has gotten swatted on shots that would normally be unobstructed. It’s not just the immediately recognizable blocks in this clip that stand out, however. Watch how quickly Thybulle closes the distance on shots that would be relatively “open,” either contesting or getting a piece of the ball — even on 3s, or looks at the rim from a 7-footer.

76ers head coach Doc Rivers likened Thybulle’s closing speed to legendary NFL cornerback Deion Sanders.

“I was talking to a very famous quarterback and I asked him why he didn’t ever throw it at Deion, and he said because the mistakes cost you seven,” Rivers explained. “You think you can get it there, but you can’t. I think that’s a lot like Matisse, a lot of guys think they can get the shot off, but they can’t. So I think it’s his closing speed that I’ve never seen. It’s amazing.”

Because of his length, athleticism, relentlessness and an increasing familiarity with his opponents’ tendencies, Thybulle has gone from a defensive weapon off the bench to the guy whose nightly task is stopping the other team’s best player.

“It was always like I was the tag-team guy on whoever’s best scorer they had out there,” Thybulle explained. “Whether it was Ben [Simmons] or Danny [Green] or whoever was on them, they would kind of tag me in and I would try and wreak some havoc. So now to have them be my assignment for the whole game has been a very new challenge. It’s been fun, it’s been really, really hard. But it’s just exciting to see my role grow and see how I can grow with it, and just continue to get the respect of these players.”

He certainly has the respect of Booker, who’s had to find ways to combat this rising defensive stalwart.

A mutual respect

The numbers might indicate that Matisse Thybulle is Devin Booker kryptonite, but make no mistake about it: This matchup is more complex than the raw tracking numbers, as Philly’s go-to stopper will admit himself.

“Um, he’s really good at basketball,” Thybulle said. “He’s one of those guys who plays hard, he plays aggressive. He’s kind of like an angry player, which is just the persona he takes on the court, but it plays to this relentless attack that he’s always putting on you all game.”

For starters, we can’t ignore that Book is still elite when it comes to hitting shots very few players can make. In last year’s April meeting where Booker was held in check until the last two minutes, his find dagger covered an inordinate amount of ground with Thybulle draped all over him. When he’s making fadeaways and step-backs like this, there’s nothing anybody on this planet can do about it:

According to NBA.com, Booker leads the league in points per touch out of all players with a minimum of 2,000 touches. He’s led all high-usage players in that category for three years running.

It’s also worth noting that, as much as the numbers seem to favor Thybulle when he’s directly matched up on Booker, this is a limited, five-game sample size we’re talking about. Book simply missing relatively open shots like these ones skews the data a bit:

Perhaps most importantly, basketball remains a team game. If it were simply a battle of one-on-one matchups, teams would just trot out their best player and have them go head-to-head.

To that end, the Suns do an excellent job utilizing the weapons around Booker to make him even more dangerous. With rim-running bigs like Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee working the pick-and-roll, plus shooters like Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson flanking them on the wing, Thybulle often has to navigate a number of actions in a split-second.

When faced with an imposing on- and off-ball defender of Thybulle’s caliber, nailing him with screens is usually a smart way to go. The Suns made sure to do so, even on these examples where Book bricked the wide-open 3 after getting a pindown from Ayton:

Another off-ball example from Tuesday yielded a much more favorable result, with Booker hitting an open corner 3 after Thybulle died on Crowder’s not-so-legal pick:

On-ball screens can be just as effective, even with Thybulle trying to maneuver his way through them. Booker is adept at snaking his way through the lane after an on-ball screen to get to his spot with a midrange pull-up:

He’s more than capable of making plays for others too. In the first example below, Ayton gives him some breathing room, forcing the defense to collapse on Booker just far enough for a kickout to Mikal Bridges, who has more than enough space for a clean look. In the second, an overcommitment to Booker leaves Cam Johnson wide open for 3 when he slips the screen.

The rest are just plain, masterful manipulation of the team defense out of the pick-and-roll, even with Thybulle doing his best to gum up the works:

It almost feels mean until one remembers Devin Booker does this kind of thing to everyone. However, Book and Williams both admitted the Suns star had been eagerly awaiting Tuesday’s meeting.

“Book was looking forward to that matchup, ’cause I think he has great respect for Matisse,” Williams said. “And he knows, like, that guy can defend. So that brings the best out of him. Great players look for motivation, and even on a back-to-back, I know Book was looking forward to this matchup. There’s a reason why he’s an All-Star, and he will be an All-NBA guy this year.”

Although the Suns have had the upper hand on Thybulle’s Sixers since he first entered the league, Booker has had to work harder for his points and those victories since his rise to a more prominent role. Hopefully this is just the start of an enthralling individual battle between two masters of their respective crafts.

“There’s a few guys in this league that have that reputation of stopping stars, and it’s a tough situation to be in when people are shooting 24-25 shots a game and the offense is ran through you,” Booker said. “So credit him for still sticking with it and never giving up on any play.”

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