Sometimes it can be a bit obnoxious to watch somebody admire their own work. It can also verge on a sweet experience.
After the Raptors’ loss to the Clippers on Monday, the second game of a heartening back-to-back all-Staples Center set, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne wanted to make sure Chris Boucher could appreciate what he did a few minutes earlier in front of thousands of fans. She pulled up the clip of Boucher’s two-handed block on the Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell, more akin to a stuff of a spike at the net in volleyball than something that takes place regularly on the basketball court. Boucher had just wrapped up his scrum with the media — back-to-back media sessions are new for Boucher, too — and observed his play.
“That’s nice,” said Boucher, his smile slowly growing. “That’s nice.”
It is too bad Boucher could not have watched the moment live, without the aid of a screen, because it looked even better in that setting. Watching it back, you can see that Boucher was merely playing on the other side of the paint, and only needed to take a few steps to get into position to contest Harrell’s attempt.
Deep breaths are required, obviously. The 46 minutes he played in Los Angeles over two nights are by far the biggest NBA sample we have of Boucher, but they are still just 46 minutes. Those minutes had their share of mistakes, too: over-eager defensive help and occasional miscues with the offence’s spacing. He had some positively heroic rebounds in crunch time, but he is overmatched on the glass more often than not.
Going back to the block, though, the best thing about Boucher’s Best Supporting Actor submission in Hollywood was the situation in which it came. The Raptors squandered their five-point lead to start the fourth quarter, and the offence had stalled out. Due to fatigue and injuries to a few of their top offensive options, a six-point deficit in the final three minutes felt like it might as well have been 15. The Raptors were out of gas.
And still, Boucher hustled to make the play, avoiding one more eruption from the crowd in what felt like a procession of them.
“He’s got a little bit of game outside and inside, blocking some shots, pretty good rebounder down there as well and he plays pretty fearlessly,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “He’s been good, really good to see in two games, a guy that’s gonna to probably have to stay in the rotation.”
Serge Ibaka’s sprained ankle necessitates that. Ibaka is out indefinitely, and that leaves a hole behind Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam in the front court.
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” Boucher said. “For me, it’s just trying to get better every time, trying to (block out outside noise) and just focus on the team. These guys have confidence in me. Coach has confidence in me and it helps me a lot. I know what I’m supposed to do, just stay focused on the right things.”
Forget the present, though, and forget projecting well into the future, too. Boucher is a work in process, but he’ll be a 27-year-old work in process in January. A few more games like the two he played in Los Angeles and it will be time to start asking what his role should be on a mostly healthy Raptors team.
Last year’s G-League MVP has some pretty obvious flaws in his game, most of them relating to his slender stature. If the Raptors can help it, he will not be called on to guard many burly post scorers, which is fine — the game is changing. They do need him to be able to stay on the floor, though.
At times in the Staples double feature, Boucher felt irreplaceable on the Raptors’ roster. That says more about the team’s injuries than Boucher himself, but it is more complimentary to the player than you’d think. Boucher wasn’t only valuable as a rim-protector against the two Los Angeles teams, but as a stimulant for the Raptors’ transition opportunities, crucial for a team which figures to be league average as an offence even at its healthiest. Without Ibaka and especially Kyle Lowry, the Raptors need to create transition opportunities, and they need to finish them. Boucher is useful in both of those aspects.
He cannot do that if he is in foul trouble. Boucher picked up three fouls in a little less than 10 minutes in the first half against the Clippers. That is not egregious for an inexperienced player competing in a particularly chaotic game, but Boucher is a big part of providing that chaos, and that is not going to change any time soon — nor should it. Still, much like Pascal Siakam as he adjusts to a new role, Boucher must learn to play within the referees’ confines without sacrificing his trademark level of activity. At least Boucher isn’t waving off the fouls as a natural product of his frenetic style, which wouldn’t even be the most dishonest reasoning.
“I’m gonna go watch the tape, but I think a lot of the fouls could have been avoided. One of them was on a blitz,” Boucher said. “I could have stayed above (his hip). One I tried to pindown for (Terence Davis) and they called an offensive foul. A lot of them were fouls I can avoid. I will learn from it and try to stay out of foul trouble.”
The opportunity will be there for him right now regardless, just because of the injuries. If he can continue to make plays happen on both ends — his willingness to shoot is almost inspiring in a “live your best life” type of way — he could have a role on this team. It might just be as a fourth big or a player who allows the Raptors to use smaller lineups, but that could be good for 10 minutes per night.
His ability to shoot, and particularly his utility on ball traps due to his length, make him a useful piece in today’s game. He was a big part of the Raptors giving Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard trouble with aggressive schemes; those arms are hard to navigate.
The key will be for Boucher to focus on that function. At least there is no questioning his gumption.
“I’ll be honest, I’ve always felt I kind of want to play fearless, no matter who I play,” Boucher said. “Obviously there are a lot of big bodies over there. But this is the NBA. If I want to be in this league, I’m gonna have to play guys like that. I don’t really think about it when I go play. I’m in the NBA. He’s in the NBA. If I’m here, I’m good enough to figure it out, play off of my energy and compensate for some of the other stuff.”