Matisse Thybulle made his first start of the season for the 76ers an impactful one, despite attempting (and making) only two shots. With Ben Simmons out due to illness (that the Sixers said wasn’t related to COVID), Thybulle moved into the starting lineup, replacing one elite defender with another.

Thybulle led a defensive effort in Wednesday’s 118-113 win over the visiting Houston Rockets that can be viewed in two ways.

Coach Doc Rivers, as he usually does, said he was happy to get the win, yet his team led by 29 points early in the third quarter, only to see a Rockets team that lost its seventh straight game come charging back.

While there may be mixed opinions on whether this was a good win or not, all were in agreement on Thybulle’s defensive impact.

The Sixers played long stretches of zone defense, where Thybulle especially excelled. He was the Naismith College Defensive Player of the Year as a senior at the University of Washington, which predominantly played zone during Thybulle’s four seasons. Thybulle was also a two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.

Against the Rockets, he had four steals, with his first three leading to eight transition points – a Danny Green three-pointer, another three by Thybulle, and a driving layup by Joel Embiid.

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“He has the potential to be the best defender in the league,” Embiid said of Thybulle after the game.

The 6-foot-5 Thybulle is a strong man defender, although like many in the NBA, he can be beaten off the dribble by quicker guards.

One reason Thybulle thrives in a zone is his great anticipation. He is more apt to gamble in a zone, knowing he has help behind him. In a way, he is like a free safety in football, using his instincts to go to the ball.

“When you play that zone, he kind of licks his chops and gets ready to do as he did in college,” said Green, who hit 4-of-6 shots against Houston, all from three-point range. “He is a mastermind and knows how to be active, kind of deceptively, messes with the offense’s mind and getting in those passing lanes and getting a lot of deflections. Seeing him working that zone is amazing, it changed the game.”

Thybulle played a season-high 31 minutes and 6 seconds against Houston in snapping the Sixers’ three-game losing streak. The Sixers (19-10) were off on Thursday and return to action to host the Chicago Bulls on Friday.

For the season, Thybulle is No. 1 in the NBA in deflections per 36 minutes with 6.2, per NBA.com stats. Even though he has made only one start and averaging just 17.7 minutes per game, he is 10th overall in deflections with 79.

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When Thybulle is on the court, the opponents’ offensive rating is 106.9, according to Basketball Reference, meaning they score that many points per 100 possessions. When he is off the court, the opponent’s offensive rating is 112.2. Another notable stat: Thybulle leads the NBA in steals per 100 possessions, averaging 4.2.

“As good as he is in man to man, he is even a better zone defender, because he can float around and use his length,” Rivers said of Thybulle.

Rivers said that he didn’t plan to play zone defense for most of the game against the Rockets, especially without Simmons.

“Once we figured that it caused confusion, we stayed in it,” Rivers said.

One of the reasons it worked? Thybulle was at his ball-hawking best.

Notes: Simmons is listed as probable for Friday’s game against the Bulls. Shake Milton, who has missed the last four games with a sprained left ankle, is listed as doubtful. Four players for the Bulls are out — Chandler Hutchinson (right lower leg contusion), Lauri Markkanen (right acromioclaviclar sprain), Otto Porter Jr. (lower back spasms), and Adam Mokoka (not with the team).