Chris Boucher evolving into big-game player for Raptors

TORONTO – Chris Boucher set a screen for his rookie teammate Malachi Flynn around the right-wing area of the three-point line then re-positioned himself firmly behind the arc.

While getting his feet set, the Montreal native received the pass back and appeared to be staring down the bottom of the basket, looking to make his fourth three-pointer on the night.

In actuality, though, Boucher was keeping a watchful eye on Nikola Vucevic, who was caught in no-man’s land and decided to walk right into the Candadian’s trap, running out at the Toronto Raptors forward.

Boucher pump-faked, took two hard dribbles and got in the paint, going up for a shot that at first looked like was a clear charge drawn from Thaddeus Young, but the call on the floor was a block. Three-point play.

The call was, to put it bluntly, bad, but they’re a common sight all around the NBA, though they’re usually reserved for the league’s superstars.

But even though he isn’t one, Boucher did play like a superstar Thursday night.

Finishing with a line of 38 points and 19 rebounds (both career-highs) on remarkable 14-of-24 shooting, Boucher did all he could to help a severely undermanned Raptors team make things competitive in their 122-113 loss to the Chicago Bulls.

“I feel like I wanted to make a splash and take what was given and I feel like we could’ve won this game,” said Boucher. “And so, obviously, I’m shooting a lot of threes and they guarded me differently now, so I’m trying to make different reads off the pick and pop now.”

With the loss, Toronto dropped to three games back of the Bulls for 10th place in the Eastern Conference (the final spot to qualify for the play-in tournament), but it wasn’t for a lack of trying from the Raptors, who only had the league minimum eight players needed to play the game.

Most notably, the effort from Boucher was nearly historic.

Boucher’s career night nearly saw him become just the fourth player in Raptors history to record a 20-point, 20-rebound game.

“He had at night, that’s for sure. I mean he was hitting shots I don’t think I’ve ever seen him take before, he was dribbling, driving, stepping back, he was he in a moment tonight, that’s for sure,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse of Boucher. “So big night for him really, really, really proud of him, happy for him, and this is a good time. He’s getting to start now and he’s getting big minutes and at least tonight he’s taken advantage of it for sure.”

The 19 rebounds Boucher recorded, in particular, were a far cry from the 6.3 per game he’s been averaging on the season and were an encouraging departure from his usually low rebounding numbers.

Though tall and very athletic, Boucher isn’t blessed with great size or strength, but — playing against a gigantic Bulls frontcourt Thursday that sometimes featured all three of Vucevic, Lauri Markkanen and Daniel Theis — he dominated, using his superior athleticism, agility and just plain willpower to find angles and means to come away with a monster night on the glass.

“I feel like lately I’ve been doing a lot better job just boxing out, trying to get to the bigs early,” said Boucher. “I feel like if I come earlier into the game ready with a mindset of, ‘I can’t let myself get bullied’ it really helps me out to move my feet and trying to get to a point where it’s a problem to get the ball and I just want to be disruptive.”

Not just disruptive, but impactful as well.

Make no mistake, Thursday was a big game for the Raptors and that’s probably why he had such a strong game. Whether he does it knowingly or not, Boucher is a big-game player that has a knack for raising his level of play in important moments.

“I try to come ready every game and obviously it’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s always giving you a little bit more when you know that one of those games is a really important game and that we really need it. Somehow, some way I think it affects me more,” Boucher said. “For me, it’s more about learning and just trying to figure out a way to always be ready. Obviously, I need to be doing that a lot more and be more consistent, but it seems to be like any time a game is really important, my game do get to another level.”

Boucher admitted he needs to do a better job of finding more consistent performance, but being able to hit an extra gear in big moments certainly isn’t a bad trait to have.

He understood what was at stake for his team Thursday and tried to respond accordingly.

“For me, it definitely did,” Boucher replied when asked if Thursday’s game felt bigger than most. “I can’t speak for everybody, but I think we came in wanting to win this game and knowing how much it was an important game and I think we tried. Like I said, it was a little bit too late and it’s getting kind of a little bit too repetitive where we just kind of want to make a comeback and it’s too late. But I do think that the effort was there and that we could’ve got the game if we played a little bit more solid.”

Unfortunately, due to a combination of the Raptors being just plain short-handed and just not enough from some of the players who were available Thursday, Boucher’s great night ended up being a bit of a waste.

Not that Boucher is complaining, though. He still has great faith his team can turn things around.

“We’re missing a lot of vets, a lot of guys that we actually, truly need and I think we go from there. We try to fix it with the group that we have. I think we’re making strides obviously, and when the main guys come back, just try to get where we can be. I think we could be a good team just by effort and everybody clicking together.”

And if Boucher can come close to playing like he did Thursday night on a more consistent basis, that will not only make the team’s efforts to reach the post-season that much easier, but there’s a chance the Raptors just might have another budding star on their hands, too.

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