Gary Trent Jr. will need to do some heavy lifting against the Sixers

On unique skill-sets and why they'll come into play against Philadelphia

Gary Trent jr. has at times been something of an afterthought for the Toronto Raptors this season. He finished fifth on the team in touches, averaging just over a touch a minute, meaning he went approximately half of Toronto’s possessions without seeing the ball. To compare him to the rest of the league, he tied DeAndre Ayton and Aaron Gordon in average touches per game, yet he dwarfed both places in points per touch, where he finished eighth in the entire league, just ahead of Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid. Trent made things happen whenever he touched the ball, but considering his efficiency, he wasn’t required to do so very much throughout the year.

That may change against the Philadelphia 76ers. Other Raptors may see themselves in dire straits in difficult moments in the series.

Fred VanVleet dominated in his one game against the Sixers, but talk out of practice so far makes it sound uncertain whether he’ll be healthy enough to carry the offensive load for Toronto. He’s shot below 30 percent from deep since Feb. 14, and more importantly, he’s seemed to create few advantages with the ball in his hands, unable to force rotations or otherwise compromise the defense. Because he’s been so unthreatening with the ball, he’s attempted only 2.4 shots per game within 10 feet, the lowest frequency since his rookie season when he was playing only 7.9 minutes per game. If he’s healthy, he should be fantastic against Philadelphia, and he’s been sitting recently to get his knee right. Even still, his health is difficult to predict.

Pascal Siakam has been Toronto’s best player for several months, and he’s been carrying singular offensive loads unknown in Toronto since the days of Chris Bosh. He should thrive against the Sixers, but he’s not an excellent 3-point shooter, particularly off the dribble. He will dice up Philadelphia’s defense, but he will rarely compromise it when he’s outside the arc, whether he has the ball or not.

OG Anunoby is another wildcard for the Raptors. He’s played 25 minutes total since April 1, and he really was only on the floor against the New York Knicks to get some cardio in. He did not look wonderful. Even if he’s not healthy, of course, he’ll still give Toronto an enormous amount. He’ll space the floor, particularly from the corners, where he shot an unbelievably 46.0 percent from deep on the year. He’ll play fantastic defense. But he hit only 26.7 percent of pull-up threes on the season, and he’s never added that particular element to his game.

Scottie Barnes struggled in the season series against the Sixers, and he shot only two for eight from distance in three games. He’s so deadly inside the arc, such an incredible finisher, that teams will practically beg him to shoot from deep. Especially when he has the ball, teams will be relieved if he’s taking pull-up threes.

At the same time, Philadelphia spends a majority of its time on the defensive end playing drop defense, asking its centers to sit in the paint and contest all comers. (Raptors fans should be familiar with the concept, as Marc Gasol was one of the best to ever do it.) The best way to beat a drop defense is to hit pull-up jumpers. And surely many Raptors will do so — Siakam from the midrange or VanVleet at times from deep. The above criticisms for Toronto’s four stars will not remain true for full games, let alone over a full series. But at times their struggles will likely coincide, which means none of VanVleet, Siakam, Anunoby, or Barnes will be able to break Philly’s defensive fortress. Perhaps for stretches of a few minutes at a time. Which leads us to a significant question that you can be sure Nick Nurse and company have been asking themselves: Who is going to force Philadelphia to stretch the shell of its defense beyond the paint?

That brings us all the way back to Trent — perhaps you already forgot about him! Just like the Raptors seemed to do from time to time throughout the season. Trent may find himself doing the heavy lifting from time to time when Philadelphia’s half-court defense has its teeth sunk into Toronto.

Trent led the Raptors in pull-up 3-point accuracy over the season, and he was even more efficient while taking more such shots in his four regular-season games against the Sixers. That was despite being hounded by Matisse Thybulle, who was his primary defender over the series, and is perhaps the best rear-view contest defender in the entire league. (That Thybulle won’t play in games in Toronto will be incredibly beneficial for Trent.)

Trent will force Philadelphia to alter its defense. If Joel Embiid and his backups play drop defense, Trent should fire away from deep with complete abandon until the Sixers change their approach. And he will — the man knows no other way to play the game of basketball. He was also fifth among starters in passes made, with the largest (negative) gap between passes made and passes received on the entire team. Dude’s a gunner. But he’s not just a pull-up shooter. Trent also led the Raptors in isolation efficiency. He led the team in frequency of his shots that came from the long mid-range, and he shot a solid 41 percent from there. He can, in a manner unlike other Raptors, simply get buckets. (That he’s not much of a passer or rim creator shouldn’t limit him as long as his control of the offense remains limited to a few minutes at a time — the Raptors aren’t asking him to run the show, simply to force adaptations from the Sixers when there is such a need.)

So when Philadelphia’s drop defense is hurting the Raptors and their limited shooting ability, Trent is uniquely capable of forcing changes. His pull-up threes, his midrange self-creation, and he unabashed willingness to simply fire up shots all will combine to accomplish the goal. Embiid will be forced to step up higher in his pick-and-roll defense, which would already a win for Toronto. His rim protection is Philadelphia’s best chance at stopping Toronto from scoring. The further he is from the rim the more likely the whole house of cards collapses, resulting in Toronto tossing points on the board in a hurry. Victory in such tactical battles can be measured in inches, and each inch Embiid steps away from the rim is another mile towards Toronto’s ultimate goal of winning the series.

The Raptors don’t employ many players capable of stealing those inches. Particularly with VanVleet’s health in question. They say that playoff series are like chess matches. And the Raptors simply don’t have many rooks, solid attacking pieces equally capable of offering support as they are delivering vicious skewers. Philadelphia will turn that to its advantage. And the Raptors must force their opponent to alter their strategies, to turn to contingency plans, to accept gambited pawns in exchange for greater tactical losses. For stretches in the series, short spans of perhaps three minutes at a time, someone on the Raptors will need to make bold and assertive chess moves. Trent may well be that tactician.