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Suns face strong test in hosting 76ers, NBA’s last unbeaten team

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams, right, talks with Suns guard Devin Booker (1) during the second half of a basketball game against the LA Clippers Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, in Phoenix. The Suns defeated the Clippers 130-122. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — Sometimes your favorite Suns Twitter follow Scott Howard can do my job for me:

Yes, Mr. Howard is exaggerating a bit for funsies, but the Phoenix Suns (4-2) beating the Philadelphia 76ers (5-0) at home Monday night would be quite the kickstart to, “Oh man, have we got something real on our hands here?!”

The 76ers are the NBA’s last unbeaten team, and even without the suspended Joel Embiid, they present quite the test for the Suns to potentially pass.

There are a handful of reasons as to why that goes beyond the 76ers being seen by a handful of experts as a NBA Finals pick to make it out of the Eastern Conference.

For one, they’re a huge squad, even without Embiid.

The 76ers will likely be starting rookie defensive ace Matisse Thybulle, meaning their starters will be 6-foot-9 Al Horford down low, 6-foot-8 Tobias Harris and 6-foot-5 Thybulle at forward, with 6-foot-5 Josh Richardson at two-guard and 6-foot-10 Ben Simmons running the show at point guard.

“Their size is something that you just don’t play against every day,” head coach Monty Williams said at shootaround Monday. “They go big most of the game and mainly because of Ben.”

Simmons is an appropriately-sized power forward at 6-foot-10 and over 230 pounds that runs the offense, meaning you need a wing that can keep up with him (he’s really fast!) but that will also not get overpowered.

Not many teams have that guy, including the Suns, who can throw the likes of Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr. at him, but Simmons is stronger. Oubre’s the likely mark that can use his over-the-top energy to hang with Simmons’ bumps.

Speaking of bumps, physicality was the buzz word from everyone who spoke at shootaround on the matchup.

Philadelphia dominates the league in rebounding right now, posting a top rebounding percentage of 56.1%, which is almost 3% higher than any other team. The Suns check in at 49.6% in 17th.

Yes, no Embiid (10.3 rebounds per game), but Harris (8.6), Horford (8.2), Simmons (6.4), Richardson (4.0) and even James Ennis off the bench (6.0 in 15 minutes per game!) get after it.

“It’s gonna be real physical,” Devin Booker said. “(We need to) come with a hit-first mentality. We know what to expect.”

Former 76er Dario Saric even went as far as to say tonight will share some similarities to a “bar fight.”

On the other end, Philadelphia will use two unique weapons defensively in Simmons and Thybulle against their two best perimeter scorers in Booker and Oubre.

In steals per game, Thybulle (2.8 per game) and Simmons (2.6) are first and second in the NBA. Simmons’ defense is criminally underrated, Thybulle is already impressing, and that’s not even being fair to Richardson, either, who is one heck of a perimeter defender as well.

Thybulle is worth singling out specifically, as he will serve as a double-edged sword for the Suns and other opponents.

In last year’s iteration of the 76ers, J.J. Redick (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) offered teams the smaller equalizer they could put their smallest/weakest perimeter defender on, but even he would run that guy around screens until their head was spinning.

Thybulle isn’t known for his offense and will likely post up in the corner, meaning whoever isn’t guarding Richardson or Simmons won’t have as tough of a time.

Fortunately, Ricky Rubio is 6-foot-3, meaning he can spend time on Richardson to give Booker rest on the defensive end if Williams feels so inclined.

The pointy end of Thybulle starting is that he’s one of the best defensive rookies the league has seen in quite some time.

“Just a man,” Williams said of Thybulle. “You don’t see many rookies come into the league with that kind of presence defensively.”

Thybulle is that rare breed of defender that reminds you of a ball-hawking NFL safety, possessing incredible playmaking instincts for the ball, always seeming a step ahead.

A lot of that was on display in his four-steal, two-block effort against the Atlanta Hawks, which, yes, he did in only 20 minutes.

Because of the 1-3-1 zone he starred in for Washington, Thybulle had extra opportunities to get a feel for plays on the ball when behind opponents, and that’s already showing with the big boys.

This is Thybulle harassing Kemba freaking Walker.

How many guys have you seen defend like that from that angle?

That clip is a good synopsis of why Thybulle is a nightmare to deal with at times, as he makes four plays on the ball in under three seconds.

The safe bet is that he will be trying to do this to Booker, who said at shootaround he wasn’t familiar yet enough with the rookie to comment on his game. He soon will be.

Thybulle is a luxury for a Sixers team that offers many more we won’t get into. For example, if Oubre guards Simmons, that means Saric is on Harris, one of the best pick-and-roll scorers in the league the past two seasons, and so on.

So, for those who feel hesitant about their expectations for the Suns through six games, this is as good of a team as any to gauge them against.


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