Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa are Toronto’s gruesome twosome off the bench

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PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 20: Chris Boucher #25 of the Toronto Raptors celebrates with Precious Achiuwa #5 against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on March 20, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

I’m not going to name names because I’m not petty, but there were a host of people — fans, writers, everybody — critical of Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa playing together early in the season. They didn’t get a whole lot of time together early on, playing three-and-a-half minutes together in Toronto’s second game and staying at that rate, more or less, for the next few weeks. And to critics’ credit, the numbers weren’t always pretty. In fact, during the month of October, the twosome had the single worst net rating on the Raptors who played 10 minutes or more together, at -44.

They didn’t break the double-digit minute barrier until Nov. 11, when the Raptors were without Khem Birch and Pascal Siakam. They played fine — winning their 14 minutes together by a single point in Toronto’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Though modest, it was the start of something beautiful. Over the next months, that acorn would grow.

The source of that general consternation in their playing together was clear. Boucher was in the midst of a down stretch to start the year, making poor choices and increasingly trying to shoot himself out of the slump. Achiuwa was not ready to run the offense at the required speed and often made poor choices out of a lack of awareness or ability to read the events happening around him. The idea — completely understandable! — was that the Raptors can only afford to play so many high-chaos, low-awareness players together at the same time.

Though such criticisms may have been fair at the start of the year, they quickly became untrue. Boucher has become one of Toronto’s most consistent performers, a constant on the defensive end and limited almost entirely to floor-spacing and rebound-snatching on the offensive end. “Chris Boucher is length, weaponized,” per the words of Samson’s Folk. Achiuwa is a sparkplug, defensive stopper across the positional spectrum and doer-of-all-things on the offensive end (shooting, offensive rebounding, driving, passing, self-creation, screening: seriously, everything).

Instead of dooming the Raptors with their similar approach to the game, they now lift the team when they enter together midway through the first quarter. Both Achiuwa and Boucher are most developed on the defensive end, and they function together by the grace of the length god. These players work in concert like Doom and Madlib; words do not suffice. So, let’s have some numbers come to you instead.

Lineups including both Achiuwa and Boucher are in the 97th percentile leaguewide at forcing misses from opponents. Okay, fine, some words, too: Opponents miss from basically everywhere on the court; the doomsday clock starts at 11:59 whenever Achiuwa and Boucher get into rotation. They almost always hit the right rotations, and both have the immense length required to dissuade jumpers and force opponents into the lane. Whichever is not the one closing out in rotation is generally on the weakside, long and fast enough to camp far into the lane and trust his recover speed if a swing pass makes it to the floor side of the court. But the real intention of that latter defender is to step up from the weakside to swallow the rim. They are two of Toronto’s three best rim protectors (Pascal Siakam is the third). I am speechless sometimes watching opponents flounder trying to create advantages when they’re both carving out swathes of territory across the court.

Since the start of 2022, Boucher and Achiuwa have practically been tethered together on the court. They played 20 minutes together in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 11, but that was really only because Toronto played eight deep that night — everyone played a lot of minutes together. But it hasn’t stopped since then. With some exceptions — Nick Nurse is quick to pull the plug on normal rotational choices if he doesn’t like the way things are going — Achiuwa and Boucher have played between 15-20 minutes together every game since the start of the new year.

Toronto’s bench has been problematic for much of the season. Boucher and Achiuwa’s togetherness has helped solve that problem. Against the Atlanta Hawks, they won their 20 minutes together by 11 points. Achiuwa scored little but played terrific defense. Boucher rained in triples. On the season now, they have a net rating together of +4.1. That’s exquisite for two bench players on what has been a shallow team.

Their energy is infectious. The criticisms of the two players early in the year have proved true in one way: they do have the same mindset. But that’s proved to be a huge positive!

I think we bring the same energy, different style of body, different style of game,” said Boucher. “Precious is more built, more physical. I’m more speed and also, I think it’s a good combination. And we know that when we come in a game we got to make a change.”

Both can space the floor on offense, set screens, and crash the offensive glass. Those aren’t always multiplicative skills, but that both can shoot means they can function together. The offense isn’t always effective — they sport a fifth-percentile effective field goal percentage together on the offensive end — but they throw back in enough putbacks that it works. Toronto’s identity is defense-first, and the Boucher-Achiuwa pairing personifies that.

It’s rare that players enter tailspins over the course of weeks only to pull out and recover their form. It’s even rarer for two players to follow that same pattern. And it’s rarest of all for those two players to be tied at the hip playing together. But that’s what happened this season with Boucher and Achiuwa. They are two of Toronto’s most chaotic forces. Yet when combined they are far more powerful than when separated, able not only to lift the Raptors’ play but indeed to go as far as defining it.

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