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Contract years suck.

You can't fault Chris Boucher for saying he's not thinking about his contract situation. When I asked him about it Saturday night he said the obvious thing: No, it's not on his mind. Was he lying? That would imply intent. But what was Boucher supposed to say? "Yes, Aaron, I've been playing badly because I can't stop thinking about my contract." Of course not.

But how could he not be? It's the same for almost every play in basically every sport. That year heading into free agency, especially if you haven't had a big contract in the past, is nerve-wracking.

"I hate contract years just because you have to do things outside your element," said Toronto Raptors center Khem Birch who inked his first big contract in the offseason. "Last year I had to score and so all the other stuff that I don’t like to do. I just like to win."

Coming into Saturday night, Boucher had been amid the worst stretch of his NBA career. After a breakout 2020-21 campaign, he started the year averaging 4.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, while shooting 33% from the floor and 18% from behind the arc. At one point it was so bad that Raptors coach Nick Nurse openly ripped Boucher to the media.

"He needs to start playing better, period," Nurse said back in late October.

On Saturday, Boucher got back to doing what he does best. Sure, he still forced a few shots, taking a couple of ill-advised early-possession jumpers, but he was running the court and looking like the Boucher of old.

"It's really good to see him have a good Chris Boucher type game," Nurse said post-game. 

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For Toronto, it wasn't all that surprising. Sooner or later the Raptors knew Boucher would turn it around, Nurse said. But still, every bad game that went by certainly made the hole feel bigger and bigger for the 28-year-old forward.

"Eventually I had to get in a little groove," said Boucher following his season-high 17 point performance. "It’s just a mindset. I think the team did a good job of keeping me focussed and knowing it can’t always go down like that. I put in a lot of work in my game. It’s coming back."

To be fair, Boucher is still sort of working his way back from preseason finger surgery. It's been a while now, but he said it affected the chemistry he had with the team and the flow he felt with such a new group.

"I feel like I’ve been searching to get that feeling again," he said. 

The Raptors are going to need Saturday's Boucher more often this season. They're going to need him to get back to the pick-and-pop sniper who shot 38% from behind the arc last season and was one of the league's best pick-and-roll men. With the offense, especially in the half-court getting bogged down so often, Boucher can be one of Toronto's few floor spacers who can nail a kick-out three-point jumper.

The key will be staying focused and flushing contract thoughts consciously or unconsciously from his mind. Once he starts pressing, forcing the action, and taking contested shots, that's when things go haywire for Boucher who has a tendency to let his offensive struggles spill over and impact his defensive intensity. That's easier said than done, of course, but when Boucher does less, he tends to do more. If he can settle down it'll only help Toronto and pay dividends for him this summer.

Further Reading

Fred VanVleet does his best Kyle Lowry impression to knock off Lowry's hometown 76ers

Scottie Barnes responds to Nick Nurse's criticism, but Raptors blown out by Celtics

Celtics coach Ime Udoka calls Scottie Barnes the 'frontrunner' for rookie of the year