With his gangly frame he strides forward, moving swiftly ahead of one defender, then another. Opponents aren’t devoting the attention they should because they still don’t know. But now he’s running through the middle that is his meadow, and what ensues is a monster dunk that reverberates his team just as much as the rim.
Make room for Chris Boucher.
Missed shots happen, so do defensive lapses, but Boucher’s unwavering confidence and effervescent hustle have paved the way for some meaningful minutes in the games that count the most.
Over the last two seeding games against the admittedly less-than-full-strength Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers teams, Boucher has averaged 22 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, and a steal while making just over half of his 13 three-point attempts. With the Toronto Raptors themselves opting for rest—Serge Ibaka missed both games—Boucher has reminded head coach Nick Nurse of the reasons he gave for more playing time before the NBA’s COVID-19 hiatus.
“I just don’t know really what to say other than we believe in them [Matt Thomas and Boucher] and there’s going to be circumstances where we need them and the first thing we’ve got to do is they need to come in and impact with energy and try to make some positive plays,” Nurse said.
Boucher’s season truly started in Los Angeles, when big-time contributions off the bench in back-to-back games against the Lakers and Clippers—both considered bigger title contenders than the Toronto Raptors—showed Nurse that he was one who could be trusted. Entering those games, Nurse had played a tight seven-man rotation of the championship core from the previous season, but injuries to Kyle Lowry and Ibaka left him no choice but to find some new solutions.
Just over a week later, the Canadian by way of St. Lucia fell two rebounds shy of racking up four double-doubles in five games, making the most of his time to shine in Ibaka’s spotlight. When Ibaka returned, Boucher went back to rooting for his teammates’ success with aplomb. He didn’t have to wait long for a chance to shine again, though, as this time it was Marc Gasol who would miss time with a hamstring injury.
"I’ve worked enormously on my body just to get stronger to be able to take the hits and finish inside." - Chris Boucher
Boucher starred in the Raptors’ franchise-record 30-point comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks with 21 points, seven rebounds, and four blocks and was a lone bright spot on Christmas with 24 points, six rebounds, and two blocks against the Boston Celtics. Some look at Boucher’s slender frame and wonder where he fits in as an NBA player. Is he a centre? Is he a power forward? The truth is Boucher has proven he can pose problems at either. His ability to shoot the ball from deep and present tremendous length defending the perimeter in Nurse’s pressing defensive style, along with his impeccable sense of timing blocking shots at the rim, have made him the perfect spark plug option for Nurse.
“It was just to understand the game,” Boucher said of improvements he focused on this season. “I feel like I’ve been playing off my reaction. I wanted to be able to learn from guys that have been playing the game for years and I can sort of slow the game down, learn good shots, better shots. I feel like I was pretty much trigger-happy. I watched the film and some shots I didn’t need to take. That’s the stuff I’ve worked on. I’ve worked enormously on my body just to get stronger to be able to take the hits and finish inside.
“There’s a lot of stuff that by watching the film I was able to understand and understand why maybe if I was doing this better, it would be able to help me out. I focused on that just to be able to help the team. Coach has been doing an excellent job. I’m not here to tell him what to do. I’m just here to get better and whenever my name is called, be ready to play.”
On or off the court, Boucher has been ready to play. Video games and TV shows have accounted for much of his non-basketball time. He considers himself a home body who doesn’t care much for going out, so the only thing he’s really missed in the NBA bubble is his family and those he generally spent his time with.
During the actual COVID-19 lockdown, Boucher also spent a lot of time improving his diet, focusing on nutrition, and making sure to consistently increase weight. He estimates that he gained about 15 pounds during the time off (leading some on social media to note that his 'Slim Duck' nickname has been rendered void) and that helped him as recently as the game against the Bucks, where he threw down one of the highlights of the season on forward Ersan Ilyasova’s head.
“I probably wouldn’t have finished it last year so that’s where the strength comes in,” Boucher said. “Moments like that and finishing offensive rebounds, that’s where I see it the most.”
Tasked with providing a spark, it has become evident time and time again that the former G League MVP provides a lift for his teammates on both ends of the floor. He is a walking highlight reel with an unassuming manner. He appears to have found himself and how he not only fits the Raptors, but the NBA as a whole. Nurse will have his Top 7 in the rotation prioritized, but depending on the night, the eighth or ninth man is going to be needed.
Boucher may have only received significant opportunities due to injuries suffered by both Ibaka and Gasol at different points of the season, but what will be most encouraging for Nurse, his staff, and teammates alike, is that those opportunities have suggested he could well make the most of any chance presented to him when the stakes are highest.
From staring down headlights to making a run for the headlines, Boucher is adding another chapter to Toronto’s unmatched developmental program.