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Pandemic circumstances could provide opportunity for Raptors' bench players

Raptors big man Chris Boucher tries to get a shot off earlier this season.
Raptors big man Chris Boucher tries to get a shot off earlier this season.

The uncertainty a pandemic creates is normally a bad thing … almost always a bad thing.

But there are a handful of players down in Naples, Fla., awaiting the opening of the NBA bubble in Disney World as members of the Raptors’ travelling party, thinking this pandemic thing might actually work a little in their favour.

Normally a professional basketball team’s rotation shrinks once the playoffs arrive. By the conference finals and certainly once the NBA Finals start, you are down to no more than seven or eight players seeing minutes, sometimes less than that.

So the chances for a guy like Chris Boucher (third on the depth chart among bigs), Matt Thomas (fifth on the depth chart among shooting guards) and Oshae Brissett (fifth on the depth chart among small forwards) seeing the floor in the playoffs is normally limited.

That’s not necessarily the case this time around.

With the uncertainty — until they get there, no one can say for sure that the Orlando bubble and the protocols built in will stave off a rash of positive tests — and the unusual circumstances where players won’t necessarily be in tip-top playing form right away, given the short training camp following the long layoff, opportunity for the end-of-bench players could be much higher than it has ever been.

For Boucher, the most likely of the aforementioned trio to find minutes in Nick Nurse’s rotation in regular circumstances, the opportunity for more is all he can ask for and he has spent the majority of his “COVID-time” — as he calls it — doing all he can to ensure he’s ready to take advantage.

“I’ve worked enormously on my body just to get stronger to be able to take the hits and finish inside,” Boucher said of all the alone time he has had since the NBA shut down back on March 11. “There’s a lot of stuff that by watching the film I was able to understand and understand why maybe if I was doing this better, it would be able to help me out.

“I focused on that just to be able to help the team. Coach has been doing an excellent job. I’m not here to tell him what to do. I’m just here to get better and, whenever my name is called, be ready to play.”

The added bulk is something Boucher has attempted to do in the past, but for whatever reason wasn’t successful. But during this pandemic, Boucher took another crack at it and has managed to add 15 pounds of bulk to his lanky frame.

“I think one of my biggest problems was I was never able to see the change and it’s always hard when you feel like you are working hard and you don’t see that change,” the 6-foot-9 centre said. “I figured ways to maintain my weight and gain a little bit more every week or two. One thing I focused on was my nutrition. What I was drinking and what I was eating. I made sure that whatever I was eating or drinking, if I worked out, I would check out how many calories I lost just to make sure I could take those calories and add more.

“There was a lot of stuff I didn’t understand about nutrition and I took the time during COVID-19 to focus on those things.”

For Thomas, it’s no secret the three-ball is his path to more minutes and for the first month and a half of the pandemic as he remained in Toronto, there was nowhere for him to work on his craft.

“It’s funny,” Thomas said of his experience since the game was shut down. “I’ve been asked by a bunch of different people if that was the longest time I’ve gone without shooting a basketball and I can’t remember the last time I went two weeks, let alone almost two months, without being able to shoot a basketball. I was trying to find parks to play in and what not in Toronto when those were still open, but then everything shut down. It was tough.”

The solution was a 12-hour drive home to Onalaska, Wisc., where he had access to both a hoop and a gym to stay ready. Thomas wasn’t worried he was all of a sudden going to forget how to shoot, but he needed to stay ready.

“You can do different things watching film, visualization exercises I was trying to do,” he said. “I was trying to do everything I could. But the feelings and everything came back pretty quick for me in the gym. It was more so just getting your body ready, making sure you get your legs strong enough, and your legs underneath you, but I’ve shot hundreds of thousands of shots in my life. That’s not going to go anywhere.”

For Brissett, the young Mississauga product and one of two two-way players on the Raptors roster in Florida, the pandemic has already given him something he might not otherwise have had and like Boucher and Thomas could yet provide more.

On May 28, Brissett was home to witness the birth of his daughter, Ellai Aria.

With the league shut down, there was no chance he was going to be on the road or rushing home from a game to take part in his magical moment. And without any basketball commitments on his calendar he was able to fully devote himself to his daughter in the first weeks of her life.

But even while taking advantage of that precious opportunity, Brissett knew basketball would soon enough come calling and it did, taking him away to Florida two weeks ago as the Raptors began preparing for the re-opening of the league.

It wasn’t easy saying goodbye as he left for the airport that day, but he did so knowing it was for another opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“No one knows what’s going to happen, I don’t know what’s going to happen, how everything is going to play out, so I attack every day, I work out hard every day because I want to play, I want to be in the rotation, want to help guys so I just do what I got to do to better my chances to get on the court,” he said.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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