TORONTO – Fans hoping to get a good look at the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors’ roster proper in the only pre-season game the club’s playing at Scotiabank Arena Sunday evening against the Chicago Bulls probably would’ve been better served trying to sneak some pre-Thanksgiving dinner pumpkin pie.
This was a Raptors roster on Sunday that was playing without Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet. With the exception of OG Anunoby, that’s the entirety of the Raptors players who, barring an unforeseen injury, are already locked in as key rotational pieces this season.
So, from an entertainment standpoint, it was pretty disappointing but with the start of the regular season only eight days away, Sunday’s 105-91 Raptors defeat without most of Toronto’s regulars ended up being an important piece of data for head coach Nick Nurse and his staff.
“We’re not playing a lot of guys tonight because of the timing and the circumstances, and the chance for us to see some guys we haven’t seen,” Nurse said before the game, making reference to the fact the team spent the past week in Japan and jet lag was probably a reason why so many guys were given the night off.
Whether guys were actually so jet-lagged they couldn’t play on Sunday was ultimately moot because they’re already locked into their roster spots. The other guys, though – the guys who were all played on Sunday – had much more to play for and Nurse wanted to see all of it.
“Can they execute? Can they handle playing defence at the level we want it to be played at,” said Nurse. “Can they move the ball and take rhythm shots on offence?”
A lot of guys attempted to provide a solution to at least one of these questions – including Patrick McCaw who, unfortunately, was forced to leave Sunday’s game with a twisted left knee – but only one man, other than Anunoby and his team high 15 points and four assists of course, definitively answered all three: Chris Boucher.
Finishing with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting, including 1-for-2 from deep in addition to two steals and four blocks, Boucher was all over the floor, making plays on both sides of the ball in both spectacular and subtle ways.
Take, for example, the very first play of the game when Boucher came up with a steal by stretching his seven-foot-four wingspan sky high and forcing a turnover on the Bulls’ Zach LaVine. The play started a fast break for the Raptors that resulted in an easy Malcolm Miller triple.
Or how about, again in the first quarter, when Boucher took a kickout pass from Anunoby and calmly drilled a three, with no hesitation whatsoever on the attempt — a major point of emphasis for Nurse’s offence that’s more interested in seeing guys let it fly in rhythm when the shot’s there than the actual result of the shot.
And lastly, each of Boucher’s four blocks, where he showed what kind of defensive game-changer he could potentially be with his unique combination of length, athleticism and timing to get up and contest without fouling.
The Raptors won the title primarily on the strength of their defence – and Kawhi Leonard, of course – last season, but the one element the team lacked was a true shot-blocking presence. With Boucher in the fold, that weakness could be shored up.
There were more examples to be seen from this game, to be sure, but Boucher was so overall impressive there were too many instances to realistically point out.
Of course, this isn’t to say everything Boucher did on the floor had the Midas touch to it. There are still areas where the 26-year-old can improve, most notably crashing the glass and hanging with big NBA centres down low.
"My big concerns with him is can he rebound? Can he rebound with the size and strength of NBA guys, and I thought he let a few get away from him tonight," said Nurse of Boucher’s performance Sunday. "And I would say, can he finish right? Again, he kind of reaches around, those long arms and at the G League level, there’s nobody up there to contest him. At this level, there’s a lot more size, he’s going to have to continue to work around it be able to move those things around when he gets the opportunity."
One way he can work around this weakness is by playing more power forward as opposed to centre. Boucher’s played the five for the vast majority of his basketball life – and did so again on Sunday – but Nurse sees an opening for him at the four where he’s more likely to find success. It’s just a matter of making the adjustments to the new position.
"We played him mostly at four in Tokyo, I think he knows the five and has some advantages there," said Nurse. "Obviously, he has some strength issues to deal with sometimes when a big five is on the floor but he’s made a lot of progress at the four. Two years ago, he couldn’t really play that position much at all, now he’s able to do that. …
"He’s probably going to have to play more four than five at this level."
Boucher added, on the matter of switching positions and playing alongside another centre, that "it’s just being able to make the reads with Marc Gasol and his passing skills right now, all the cuts, setting screens, getting somebody else, I think that’s what I’ve got to focus on because Marc Gasol can pass the ball so well. Kyle, Fred, they can do that so well. When I come in playing the four playing with Marc or Serge, I think that’s going to have to be the adjustment I have to do."
And despite the criticism of Boucher, it looks like Nurse believes Boucher can make the adjustment.
"I like his pop, like his ability to be able to step out and shoot," said Nurse. "Again, it’s a role he’s trying to fit into and I thought was okay tonight."
Nurse has been high on Boucher, saying before the game that he believed Boucher had a “shot at cracking the rotation.” And after Sunday’s performance it feels like he has a good chance to be part of the mix when games start to play for real.
“Just continue consistent play,” said Nurse of what Boucher has to do to be part of the consistent Raptors rotation. “I think he’s played well, he’s had a good camp. He’s certainly got what I would consider a fearless approach to playing in the NBA. He thinks he can play and he shows that.”
Boucher, a Montreal native, began his camp in awkward circumstances as he was one of the many Canadian NBA players who dropped out of the FIBA World Cup. He said he had to deal with family issues and “just wanted to make sure that everything was ready for when the season started,” on the team’s media day.
Given the poor showing of Canada at the World Cup, those words rang a little hollow at the time, but with the training camp and pre-season Boucher has had so far it looks like he really did come in with the right focus and mentality for the 2019-20 Raptors season.
So there was at least one thing for fans in attendance Sunday to be thankful for in what was otherwise an incredibly pre-season-like pre-season game.