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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – It was a familiar feeling, but one he hadn’t felt in a while.

That feeling of running the court, throwing down slam dunks, blocking shots and impacting the game in a positive way. Chris Boucher had missed it.

“It felt good,” the 28-year-old big man said after scoring a season-high 17 points in the Raptors’ 115-109 win over Philadelphia on Thursday. “I feel like I’ve been searching to get that feeling again, [that] feeling like you’re doing the right thing and in the right spot… It felt good to get it back today.”

Boucher is coming off a breakout campaign. He was one of the lone bright spots during an otherwise disappointing season for the Raptors down in Tampa. To say he hasn’t looked like the same player early in the new year would be an understatement.

Through 13 games, he’s averaging just 5.7 points, down from a career-best 13.6 last season. At this time last year, Boucher had hit 21 of his first 44 three-point attempts (48 per cent). Going into Thursday’s contest, he was shooting just 6-for-33  from long range (18 per cent).

But it’s not just his shooting numbers that have fallen off (from 51 per cent from the field last season to 37 per cent), his shot selection and decision making on both ends of the floor have been erratic. As a result, his playing time has dropped (from 24.2 minutes per game to 13.6).

Boucher has been playing catch up since dislocating his finger in one of the team’s first practices, undergoing surgery and missing most of training camp. He returned a week or two ahead of schedule, getting cleared in time for opening night, but the rust has shown, and he knows it.

“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,” Boucher said. “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.”

That’s what he did on Thursday, particularly in the second half as the Raptors made their run and turned the game. With Pascal Siakam getting the night off in the second leg of a back-to-back and Khem Birch nursing a knee ailment, Boucher got some extra run. For the first time this season, he looked like himself.

With Toronto chipping away at a 10-point deficit midway through the third quarter, Boucher grabbed a defensive rebound and outran everybody else down the court for a dunk. Later in the frame, he followed a missed Fred VanVleet layup and jammed home the put back.

He caught and finished an alley-oop pass from Gary Trent Jr. on the first play of the fourth quarter and then blocked Shake Milton’s corner three on the other end – a category he led the league in last season. A minute later, he picked up a loose ball and led a one-man fast break to give Toronto a 10-point lead, its largest of the evening.

Boucher has nine dunks on the season; five of them came against the 76ers on Thursday. He even hit a three. His 17 points were more than he totalled in the previous five games combined and came less than 24 hours after he played seven scoreless minutes in Wednesday’s loss to Boston.

“It's really nice to see him have a good Chris Boucher-type game,” Nick Nurse said. “I think he probably had what he would say was not a very good game last night and not great energy and all kinds of things, but today's a new day… And he just responded, and I think that's a good sign. We've got enough evidence or data on him to know what he's capable of, and to keep rolling him back out there and not say we’ve got to go somewhere else. We believe in him, and we keep telling him that, and he produced tonight, so good for him.”

For Boucher, it’s something to build on, and he shouldn’t be lacking for motivation. He’s in the final season of the two-year $13.5 million contract he signed in the fall of 2020 and will be an unrestricted free agent this coming summer. However, even after establishing himself as one of the league’s most improved players a year ago, nothing is guaranteed.

His spot in Nurse’s rotation was already tenuous, having played fewer than 10 minutes in four of the past six games. Now you add Siakam to the mix, and the team hopes to have Birch back over the weekend, with Yuta Watanabe expected to make his season debut next week.

At full strength, there are six locks for the rotation: VanVleet, Trent, Siakam, Birch, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes, in no particular order. From there, Dalano Banton appears to have won the backup point guard gig, and Svi Mykhailiuk has played well and earned Nurse’s trust, so that makes eight. On most nights, that leaves one or maybe two spots for Boucher, Precious Achiuwa, Malachi Flynn and Watanabe, who Nurse will want to get a look at when he’s back up to speed.

Boucher is the most established player in that group, so that might give him a leg up, but minutes could be hard to come by for all of those guys, provided the team remains healthy. Of course, things can change quickly, and Boucher knows that as well as anybody.

Opportunities tend to present themselves over the course of a long season, but without guaranteed minutes and with plenty of competition behind him, he’ll have to earn and then be ready to take advantage of those opportunities.

But if you’re familiar with his success story, from humble roots in Montreal to the bright lights of the NBA, then you know this is not someone who wastes opportunities.

“When you work on your game and you’ve got so many things that you feel like you're capable of doing, you’re trying to put it all together at one time and that's not how it is,” Boucher said. “And if there's one thing I've learned through this tough stretch, is you can’t cheat the game. You can’t feel like you can come in a game and just do whatever you want. I came back from injury, and this is what I needed to realize, it takes time. It's a new team, it has 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, but eventually I'll get there and this a good step for me.”