Coming off a nightmare start, Raptors' Boucher starting to turn a corner

Nick Nurse and Chris Boucher address the media after the Raptors beat the 76ers in Philly, with Boucher putting up a season-high 17 points and finally getting “that feeling” back, but he’s obviously not satisfied yet.

The start Chris Boucher had to the 2020-21 season was a revelation, an ode to the most pleasant of statistical aberrations and one of the most joyous months for a player in Toronto Raptors history if you are the type to take pleasure in unlikely fortune landing on someone who had been skipped over more than once.

Through those magical 13 games just 12 months ago, the lanky, awkward Montrealer whose NBA career almost never happened on almost too many occasions to count was inarguably one of the most productive basketball players on the planet.

He had a higher field goal percentage that Nikola Jokic, twice as many blocked shots as Joel Embiid and was knocking down 47 per cent of his threes, just like Kevin Durant was at the time.

Coming off the bench for the Tampa Raptors, the six-foot-nine, 200-pound Boucher was averaging an astounding 16.1 points, seven rebounds and 2.5 blocks shots – in 23.8 minutes a game. His TS% was 72.9 and his net rating was +38. For context, the prolific Jokic went on to win the MVP award with a TS% of 64.7 and a net rating of +21 during a season he recorded some of the highest efficiency totals in NBA history.

It couldn’t last, but even with some predictable regression, Boucher averaged 13.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. He was first in scoring, second in blocks and fourth in WinShares among players averaging less than 25 minutes a game.

It was a career year, and his teammates couldn’t have been more thrilled.

“You can’t be happier as a teammate, as a brother, as a friend to see him succeed and to see him play at the level that he’s been playing at,” said Fred VanVleet. “He’s been carrying his weight. He’s been playing great. I’m just super happy for him, I’m proud of him.”

There was optimism that Boucher, 28, would pick up where he left off last season and fit in perfectly as one of an army of rangy, switchable defenders the Raptors were planning to run out on the floor, with Boucher’s offensive pop a significant bonus.

But after a strong summer and good start in training camp, Boucher dislocated the ring finger on his left hand. He required surgery and when he returned on opening night, he looked like someone who hadn’t played in three weeks, and got worse from there.

Unlike a season ago, Boucher’s start was a nightmare. Through 10 games, he was shooting 33.3 per cent from the floor and 18.2 per cent from deep on a menu of ill-advised threes and unlikely dribble drives that turned into impossible fadeaway floaters. While Boucher has always been a bit of an adventure when it comes to executing schemes defensively, his fearlessness and energy allowed him to make plays that helped make up for. As his offence and playing time withered, doubts crept in on that side of the ball too.

He was a mess. The worse things got, the harder he tried to make his minutes count and the downward spiral accelerated.

“I was doing so good in training camp, and then you get hurt in preseason (and) the team gets chemistry (when) you’re out of it,” said Boucher, “you’ve got to find a way to introduce yourself to the team. ... I’m sure a lot of people were disappointed in the way that I’ve been playing and what I’ve been giving this year. I have a good circle and they help me stay within myself and focus on the right things, knowing every day is a new day and coming in with the same energy and being ready to change some games.”

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse kept the message simple:

“He just needs to do what he does. Right? He needs to run, block shots, and get on the offensive glass and then score. You know he's been a scorer in the system for a while now and he needs to get on track.”

It finally happened on Thursday in Philadelphia. With the Raptors short-handed and on the second night of a back-to-back, Boucher came off the bench for 17 points, six rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 24 minutes. There were alley-oop dunks, put-back dunks and fastbreak dunks. His three-point attempts came in rhythm and trusted his instincts defensively.

It was like a weight had been lifted off his slender shoulders. He called his start to the season one of the most stressful experiences of his career, which is saying something given he tore his ACL in his draft year at Oregon, went undrafted and was waived by the Golden State Warriors after they signed him to a two-way contract for the 2017-18 season and was lucky to earn a Summer League tryout with the Raptors in 2018.

“Eventually, I had to get in a little groove,” he said after the Raptors win Thursday. “It’s just a mindset. I think the team did a good job of keeping me focussed and knowing it can’t always go down like that. I put in a lot of work in my game. It’s coming back. I came back from injury. There’s a lot of change, a lot of positions, a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things on this team. I’ve just got to find my role, where to take my shots, and find my confidence that I had last year. I think today was a big step for me in finding that confidence again and realizing the way that I have to play.

“(But) it felt good. I feel like I’ve been searching to get that feeling again, feeling like you’re doing the right thing and in the right spot. I’ve been missing that feeling. It felt good to get it back today. I’m not satisfied. These 10 games, I played like I couldn’t play or wasn’t the player I’m supposed to (be). Step by step, but I’m definitely happy about today and I’m gonna keep getting better at it.”

The challenges will continue. The Raptors are determined to find minutes for Precious Achiuwa, the young centre with oodles of athletic potential but who has largely struggled so far, and veteran Khem Birch has been positive influence in his minutes and is expected to be back in the lineup Saturday against the Detroit Pistons after missing two games with knee swelling. Pascal Siakam has returned and Yuta Watanabe is expected back imminently. Minutes and the four or five in any configuration are going to be tough to come by.

Boucher was at risk of falling out of the rotation all together – a disaster in a contract year. But as he’s done so many times before – going all the way back to his discovery as a completely unknown 19-year-old playing in a summer tournament in Montreal – Boucher found a way to put up a big game at the perfect moment.

The challenge now is to keep doing it. The Raptors might have plenty of bodies but not many with Boucher’s ability to block shots defensively and space the floor on offence.

There’s a role there for him if he can grab it. Don’t bet on him letting it slip through his fingers now. He’s come too far.

“And if there's one thing I've learned (in) this tough stretch, it’s you can’t cheat the game,” he said. “You can just feel like you can come in a game and just do whatever you want. At the end of the day, I came back from injury and this is what I needed to realize.

“It takes time. It's a new team, it’s got new players, it’s a new position and this is what I really needed to understand. It took more time than I would want and probably more than everybody wanted to, (but) it's a good step for me and obviously I'm planning on getting better every game so people can see what I can do and what I've been doing.”

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