Trent averaged one swipe per game in 2020-21, ranking 100th among his peers. At the end of the 2021-22 regular season, Trent skyrocketed to sixth place with 1.7 steals a night. Coincidentally, the player who ranked seventh was Philadelphia 76ers guard Matisse Thybulle. Thybulle serves as the 76ers defensive ace, averaging around one block a game to go along with his 1.7 steals. But after it was announced he will be ineligible for Games 3 and 4 in Toronto after revealing he is not fully vaccinated and therefore unable to cross the border into Canada, Trent’s job will be a lot easier.
Offensively, Thybulle is likely the fifth option regardless of who he shares the floor with and although he won’t be missed on that end, his defensive contributions (or lack thereof) mean the Raptors can lean on Trent with comfort. The playoffs are going to be a new test for the 23-year-old, but realistically, he’s felt the pressure all season. In establishing himself as the starting two-guard for the Raptors, Trent increased his scoring average and also carved out a piece of Raptors history in February by joining DeMar DeRozan as the only Raptors player to score 30-plus points in five straight games. He has also been given free rein by coach Nick Nurse to hoist up a triple or mid-range jumper, and has also been better at driving the lane when the opportunity presents itself.
Perhaps no other game showed how tenacious he can be than his 42-point explosion against the lowly Houston Rockets, as he chipped in six triples and four swipes. In Toronto’s most recent matchup against Philadelphia, he poured in 30 points over 41 minutes and led all starters in net-rating. Trent’s stock is trending up, specifically for this particular playoff matchup.
Given Thybulle’s situation, the biggest focus is going to be how James Harden performs. In three games this season, Trent has covered Harden for just 5:48, scoring four points on five field-goal attempts. While that’s a limited sample size, Harden has had poor production against the Raptors. In two games against Toronto since joining the 76ers, Harden averaged 15 points on 33 percent shooting, along with 4.5 turnovers. On the bright side for Philly, Harden also averaged 11.5 assists, so while he wasn’t been able to find his shot, he’s still a huge component in how the 76ers generate offence.
Trent doesn’t set up his teammates in the way that Harden does, but he is still imperative to everything the Raptors do and helps them win games. In fact, the Raptors are 20-6 whenever Trent scores 20 or more points.
It’s fair to believe that the Raptors, who have built an identity all their own, should lean into who they are in the playoffs. The way they play, with aggressiveness turned up to 11 on the offensive glass and in passing lanes, is matched in certain ways by teams such as the Timberwolves and Grizzlies. Given their size and length, the Raptors turn that playing style into something unique.
However, an identity can become an albatross if clung to too tightly. The Raptors obviously do not want to bend toward the 76ers’ glacial, half-paced, free-throw-heavy style, but to ignore how their first-round opponents can influence a game would be silly. Joel Embiid is one of the largest men in the NBA and one of the league’s best and most impactful players. To assume the Raptors will be able to impose their will on Philadelphia is a little bit of a waste. Embiid demands that respect.
In one case, Embiid demands Nick Nurse ask himself a question he has answered the same way every time he’s had a chance to ask it to himself this season: Should he start the Raptors’ five core players together, or should he throw a more centre-adjacent option to soak up some minutes, and fouls, on Embiid?
“There’s certainly an argument to be made a lot of ways,” Nurse said on Wednesday. “I would say there’ll be a lot of iterations of it.
“Four minutes into the game and five minutes into the game, it’s going to start changing, and it’s going to keep changing rapidly throughout the series. And we’ll see.
The success of Nurse’s teams is undeniable. The Raptors have won 186 of 308 games since he took over from Dwane Casey in 2018 (a 60.3 per cent winning percentage) and he has an NBA title and coach-of-the-year award on his resumé.
It’s not the least bit surprising that his name surfaces when other jobs come open. Why wouldn’t the Lakers or agents leak their interest in the 54-year-old? But since the only real assets that can be obtained in a “trade” for a coach under contract are draft picks, and with Los Angeles not having a first-round pick until at least 2025, it’s hard to imagine Toronto being interested in swapping Nurse for the right to select a kid who is barely eligible to drive today.
Besides, in the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” chatter around NBA job openings, reports Tuesday suggested that Lakers star LeBron James is intrigued by the possibility of Mark Jackson returning to the coaching ranks.
Still, there is no denying Nurse’s reputation among NBA coaches puts him in the upper echelon. He’s won with a veteran team in 2019, and taken this young squad to a 21-game improvement over 2020-21 — and fifth in the East — by coaching an unorthodox roster to unexpected heights.
“He gets the most out of his teams, and I think that’s the quality of a great coach,” Griffin said. “Management does a great job of giving us pieces, but the head coach has to maximize those pieces and I think coach Nurse does that better than anyone I’ve been around.”
One of the most intriguing matchups of the upcoming best-of-seven series will be between Nurse and Philadelphia counterpart Doc Rivers.
Coach Nick Nurse and the Raptors launch what they hope will be a long playoff run on Saturday in Philadelphia.
With the teams so familiar with each other — they’ve met twice in the last month, with the Raptors winning both in similar fashion — a wrinkle or two by either coach to steal a game could be the difference in what looks like an evenly matched series.
Rivers has vastly more experience — 1,778 regular-season games, 192 in the playoffs — but the same number of NBA titles and top coach awards as Nurse over 23 seasons with four teams. The 76ers coach certainly has a more traditional roster to work with, and that may limit what tricks he can pull out of his sleeve, but the perception is that Nurse can and will be far more experimental.
It will come down to which players better implement the game plans the coaches give them, of course, but there’s every indication that Nurse will have a deeper bag to dig into.
“I think his game-planning is really good,” second-year Raptors guard Malachi Flynn said. “His defensive schemes, he comes up with a lot of different stuff to throw off their offence. And for us, he gives us a lot of freedom to play with.”
As it stands the team has Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and veteran Thad Young with nine or 10 playoff battles under their belts and all over 1,000 minutes of playoff run on their résumés.
After that, the falloff is pretty drastic.
OG Anunoby has been around for much of the Raptors playoff success, but remember, he missed all of the biggest run following his appendix bursting just before the playoffs began.
Anunoby has taken part in four playoff series in his career and been on the court for a total of 631 minutes.
Chris Boucher experienced the championship run but his three series of actually being on a playoff roster total 46 minutes of court time.
After that, there’s Gary Trent Jr.’s one playoff series and the one series Precious Achiuwa experienced with the Miami Heat.
It leaves a lot of the roster still needing to find out first hand what all those old heads are talking about when they go on about how different NBA regular season basketball and NBA playoff basketball are.
The physicality, the attention to detail, the tightened defence — all of it adds up to a very different game than the one played in the 82-game run up to get to that point.
“First thing I tell them is it’s a long process,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of getting acclimated to the playoffs. “There’s a lot of chances for us all to get better. That’s the first thing, so let’s keep coming in daily and doing our individual player development and things like that to continue to get better.
“There’s going to be some ups and downs and they’re just going to seem a lot more magnified. And you’re going to have to recover whether you win a game by 20 or lose by 20. You’re going to have to get recovered and get ready to play the next one because there’ll be another one coming and no matter how intense that feels, that’s the way it is in the playoffs. So, get ready for it.”
That’s the concern for Toronto. A “slugfest” is going to benefit the Philadelphia 76ers who play a methodical slow-paced brand of basketball. They’ll run pick-and-rolls with Joel Embiid and James Harden or throw post-ups into the paint and let the 7-foot Embiid get to work as the clock ticks away. Since acquiring Harden on Feb. 10, the 76ers rank fifth in the league in half-court scoring compared to 29th in transition offense, per Cleaning the Glass. The Raptors, conversely, rank 26th in half-court scoring and fourth in transition offense.
“It’s very much so harder (to play in transition) in the playoffs for the simple fact of teams are trained and taught to, once the shot goes up – especially if it’s a team that likes to play in transition – to hurry up and send two guys back,” said Thad Young. “It’s definitely much more tougher for the simple fact that it’s a seven-game series and you’re gonna hone in on the strengths and the weaknesses.”
The key for the Raptors is going to be dictating the game to Philadelphia. For as good as the 76ers are in half-court settings on both ends of the court, they ranked 28th in the league in transition defense during the regular season and only got worse when Harden showed up.
If Toronto can force Philadelphia to play Raptors basketball, the Raptors should have no problem overcoming their offensive shortcomings. However, if as Nurse said, the series becomes a “slugfest” and the 76ers can slow things down, the Raptors may find themselves facing the same fate as the 2020 playoffs when the Celtics forced Toronto to adapt to their brand of basketball.