Raptors' Chris Boucher has made the most of Serge Ibaka's absence

TORONTO — Chris Boucher may have to look over his shoulder pretty soon, but he’s done everything he possibly could over the course of Serge Ibaka’s absence to validate having the opportunity to do so.

In just over 20 minutes against the Magic on Wednesday night, Boucher collected his second double-double in as many games with 14 points and 11 rebounds, making a case for minutes even when the incumbent Ibaka returns from a right ankle injury as quickly as Saturday, according to head coach Nick Nurse.

Early in the second quarter, the 26-year-old made a perfectly timed trailing block on Orlando Magic veteran Al-Farouq Aminu, then raced down the court for a put-back jam in transition. On the Raptors’ next offensive possession, he attacked a closeout on the left extended elbow and elevated at the rim against Aaron Gordon, drew the foul, went to the line, and made both free throws. He missed a 3-pointer soon after, but more than made up for it with a nasty one-handed dunk on Mo Bamba, who was having quite the opposite of Boucher’s night.

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This was all part of a 9-0 Toronto run to open the second quarter, and the performance was so impressive it even earned him some extra run at power forward alongside Marc Gasol later in the quarter. Realistically, that is Boucher’s ideal position in the NBA, but in a matchup against the Magic, where Jonathan Isaac can be found at centre occasionally and Bamba continues to look like a deer in the headlights, there’s the opportunity for Boucher to make his mark at centre.

Even when Khem Birch picked up the minutes Nikola Vucevic left on the table as a result of what looked like a serious ankle sprain, Boucher made up for his lack of length with fanatical energy. Over and over, Boucher would be located on the perimeter as Toronto ran its plays, but then sprang toward the basket as shots went up and regularly beat Magic defenders to the glass. Within the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, he snared four offensive rebounds to help the Raptors hold steady with Pascal Siakam on the bench.

“I think the key to that is you go consistently, no matter where you are,” Nurse said after the game. “You see a shot going up, you just take off flying and if you go in there — say you go in there nine times in a row, you're going to probably tip a couple in because he’s flying hard, he's got length, he's got some speed to use to get up in the air.

“He works at that a little bit, when we're playing 4-on-0 or 5-on-0 in practice, he works on his timing, flying in there trying to chase those rebounds.”

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The Raptors are 28th in offensive rebounding on the season, and so it must be a refreshing sight to have someone who can give opponents a taste of their own medicine. Since entering the rotation on Nov. 8, Boucher has snared 24 offensive rebounds in just over 125 minutes of action. That’s almost seven offensive rebounds per 36 minutes. The current league leader in offensive rebounding is Andre Drummond with 4.4 in 34.7 minutes per game. The sample sizes are obviously vastly different, but it’s been pretty spectacular to witness the tear Boucher’s been on as of late.

Nurse explained that one of the problems Boucher has had prior to the recent run of success is getting caught up in coverages and trying to be in the right place and then getting caught off guard by something the opposition changes on the fly on the other side of the floor. When Boucher thinks, he goes into Alan (Zach Galifianakis) counting cards in ‘The Hangover’ mode, minus actually getting it right. So now, Nurse has accepted that mistakes are going to be made. But what he’s also come to recognize is that Boucher can make an impact when he just trusts his instincts, when he just plays. Less thinking, more doing.

“He (Nurse) told me I gotta focus on rebounding, rebounding and blocking shots, protect the paint,” Boucher said after the game. “I think I made up my mind to do that, I just figured out ways to use my speed and get to certain points where I think the ball is going to be and it’s working right now so might as well keep it going.”

What’s made a huge difference for Boucher is not worrying about the offence. Never short on confidence, Boucher was often shot-happy with whatever opportunities he got at the NBA level last year and this. But now, he’s focusing on what he brings to the table defensively and then letting the game come to him offensively.

That’s a little easier to do when you don’t have an Ibaka backing up Gasol, but the confidence Boucher can take from the last couple of weeks should hold him in good stead going forward. He’s given Nurse a problem he likely wouldn’t have envisioned in the season’s early going, figuring out how to get all these new faces minutes. Considering the heavy toll his stars have taken in terms of minutes in the early going, it’s a problem he won’t complain about.

Season after season, it’s been the point guard position that has run deepest for the Raptors. In Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, the team had three very capable point guards. VanVleet made such an impression that it deemed Wright expendable, now Terence Davis is already forcing his way into a meaningful role in the rotation.

Perhaps taking their cue, Chris Boucher is trying to start that trend among the bigs.

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