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A Week in Rip City: Matisse Thybulle’s Jazz, Simons’ Shooting, and More

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Portland Trail Blazers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome, Portland Trail Blazers fans, to another Week in Rip City!

Like a broken record this past week, the Trail Blazers once again played spirited games, but couldn’t finish the deal during winning time. Still, these Trail Blazers are much more entertaining than a broken record, with developments aplenty as they embark on the rebuild journey.

Among those developments, we’ll talk about the freeform jazz stylings of Matisse Thybulle, the hot shooting of Anfernee Simons and all the other goods...now take us to our intro music, “La La Land” cast! (I swear this choice will make more sense in a moment).

Record for the Week: 0 Wins, 2 Losses — 110-106 loss at Warriors on Wednesday; 125-112 loss vs. Mavericks on Friday

1. You’re a Wizard, Matisse

Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups uses colorful, showy expressions like “wizard” and “artist” to describe the defensive play of Portland forward Matisse Thybulle. Billups used the terms at training camp, and he did it again in a great piece by The Athletic’s Jason Quick from earlier this week (subscription required):

“I think our connection is getting stronger,” Billups told The Athletic in a piece published on Dec. 6. “For instance, we know Tisse is a wizard, he’s all over the place. I allow him to be an artist out there … and now guys are understanding that OK, when he goes (off script) we have to get his man … well, that’s big time growth, and it comes from understanding each other.”

The third-year coach talks about Thybulle’s defensive mastery with a passionate admiration — like Ryan Gosling explaining the beauty of jazz to Emma Stone in “La La Land.”

I bring up the movie because of Billups’ words, but also because Thybulle is like a jazz soloist in the heart of Portland’s defensive attack, helping form an ensemble of beautiful chaos. He improvises from the set with gambles, subtle jabs and ball pressure, and still has the athleticism to scramble back to shooters on his next rotation to keep things intact. And as Billups mentioned above, Thybulle’s teammates are starting to get better at maintaining cohesion around the mayhem, too. At the very least, Thybulle disrupts offensive rhythm, hounding opposing players to make catches difficult or forcing teams to restart from out of bounds by tipping balls away. At best, he ignites pick-six fast breaks for easy transition opportunities.

Thybulle is a primary catalyst behind Portland’s new aggressive defense that’s tied for No. 1 at forcing turnovers in the NBA. There are several players pitching in to implement the new style, but Thybulle is best at it. Among players with at least 200 minutes logged this season, Thybulle ranks No. 3 in deflections per 36 minutes and No. 8 in steals per 36 minutes with 5.3 and 2.4, respectively. As the Trail Blazers noted on X, formerly known as Twitter, Thybulle has recorded a steal in 11 straight games, dating back to Nov. 15.

After a slow start that led to his demotion from the starting lineup, we are seeing in full what Billups was so impressed with at training camp, and it’s simply beautiful to watch. It’s conflict, it’s compromise and it’s brand new every play; It’s very, very exciting!

Then there’s the ever-improving 3-point shot. This marked the first week I found myself subconsciously expecting Thybulle’s 3-point attempts to end in makes; for the most part they did. Thybulle shot 3-of-5 on 3s against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday and 3-of-5 on 3s against the Dallas Mavericks on Friday, putting him at a 41.3% clip on the season on 3.8 attempts per game. In the Warriors game, he even buried a clutch 3-pointer with under a minute left to bring Portland within one, but that shot was largely forgotten after Portland failed to win.

If I may say one more, non-box-score thing about Thybulle’s game, I appreciate his demeanor. There’s a tendency to believe that great, aggressive defenders must play with anger or unhinged emotion or an in-your-face trash-talking persona, but Thybulle flips that style on its head. He seems to play with a great joy and calmness, always quick to smile on the court and in interviews. He’ll bust you up on defense, then give you a wink and smile in the process. I like the intense trash talkers, but I like Thybulle’s way, too.

Some thought the Trail Blazers might’ve overpaid to keep Thybulle in the mix this offseason with a three-year, $33 million contract. But at just 26, the defensive wizard, or jazz artist, if you will, has been playing like an untouchable role player who should factor into long-term rebuild plans.

2. Simons Returns, So Does the Great Shooting

The biggest development of the week was the return of Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons. Out since opening night with a thumb injury, one almost could’ve forgotten the microwave-style, elite scoring Simons can unleash on defenses. The sixth-year pro didn’t take long to remind everybody.

Simons shot a not-great 10-of-27 from the floor in his return against GSW, but he was superb from long distance, going 6-of-13 on 3s to put up 28 points. Then he was simply superb all around on offense against the Mavs, registering 30 points and eight assists on 10-of-21 shooting from the field and 4-of-10 from beyond the arc. Simons single-handedly kept Portland in the game behind huge scoring stretches, including an individual 13-0 run in the second quarter when Portland was down bad. That run came off a medley of triples, midrange jumpers, drives and layups. The whole bag. These heroics to keep Portland in the game came without Jerami Grant, Malcolm Brogdon and Deandre Ayton in the lineup.

Simons’ offensive punch is different from the ones displayed by Brogdon and Grant. Simons’ scoring is a more high-octane, compact force, capable of flipping a game in an instant and making the defense say, Oh, sh— in fear.

Portland was spoiled by the offensive exploits of Damian Lillard for 11 years. The Trail Blazers get some of that electricity back with Simons. His return is fun from a basketball standpoint, but also crucial from a data-collecting standpoint. How will he continue to integrate with the group going forward?

3. Tip-Ins

Highlight of the Week: There weren’t any viral highlights this week, so staying on theme with Matisse Thybulle, we’ll showcase this steal and fast break:

Quote of the Week: Chauncey Billups doesn’t want to gift his loved ones free memberships to the Jelly of the Month Club this Christmas, so he’s keeping relatively quiet about his frustrations with refs to keep his wallet safe. However, he still opened up a little bit this week. Here’s what Billups said after what he saw as inconsistent officiating in Portland’s game against Dallas:

Oh man...don’t get me started, bro. It’s Christmas time. I don’t want to give any of my money away. I’ve got four girls in my house, my wife and three daughters. I’ve got to keep my money.

I don’t know how we gain it. I’ve always just had this defensive mindset, even as a player. I feel like when you are the aggressor, most times you get the favor. Or at least they understand how you play and everything is not a foul. There have been several times I’ve sat up here and I didn’t complain at all about the calls they called against us because we play aggressive. And we foul more than I like, but I know you can never really have one without the other. If you’re going to be very aggressive, you’re going to have to live with some fouls. We’re an aggressive team most times. But when we’re attacking and doing the same thing, the inconsistency really bothers me. I don’t know. I don’t know how you do that, but we’re going to keep plugging away, just doing the best that we can.

Best Movie I Saw This Week (a category for me): 1949’s “Holiday Affair” starring Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum. I give it 3.5 Pinwheels out of 5!