Raptors vs. 76ers: Gary Trent Jr. could be Toronto's biggest X-factor

When the Toronto Raptors traded for Gary Trent Jr. last season, they got a certified bucket-getter. But at only 22 years old, he had the potential to become something more than just a scoring machine off the bench.

While the Raptors exceeded expectations across the board this season, Trent has served as a staunch reminder of how good Toronto is at identifying and developing talent.

Let's start with defence, where Trent made significant strides this season. In his time with the Trail Blazers, he didn’t see consistent minutes, which was understandable given that he was backing up Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. But if there’s anything more evident than the lack of opportunity, it’s the tenacity Trent displays every time he’s on the floor.

Gary Trent Jr. poured in 30 points when the Raptors faced the 76ers in their last meeting on April 7. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

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.

Philly will ask a lot from their guards, particularly Harden and Tyrese Maxey. But that’s because all the pressure in this series is on the 76ers. Any pressure put on the Raptors is solely internally, and that might even be a stretch. If it’s a matter of expectations, no one has placed higher expectations on themselves, and met them, than Gary Trent Jr.

More from Yahoo Sports