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Toronto Raptors beat Charlotte Hornets 111-108

Charlotte Hornets forward P.J. Washington (25) blocks a shot by Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher (25, right) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara).

TAMPA, Fla. — Thrust into a key role with the Toronto Raptors this season, Chris Boucher is playing the most consistent basketball of his NBA career.

The Montreal forward had 25 points and 10 rebounds off the bench and the Raptors held on to beat the Charlotte Hornets 111-108 on Thursday.

And moments after the win, coach Nick Nurse was asked if he’s surprised by Boucher’s excellent play over the past few games.

“I don’t want to ever say, when a guy’s playing really well, that you didn’t expect it, be surprised,” Nurse said. “I think we’ve got to happy about it, I don’t want to act like I’m in shock here.

“But he is playing really well, and as good as the numbers look, there’s a lot of room for improvement.

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Read more: Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse says he has to stop pulling his mask down during games

Fred VanVleet had 17 points, while Kyle Lowry added 16 and 12 assists for the Raptors (3-8), who nearly gave away another game over the dying minutes. Pascal Siakam chipped in with 15 points, while OG Anunoby had 13, and Norman Powell finished with 11.

Terry Rozier had 22 points to top the Hornets (6-7), who were on a second night of a back-to-back, having lost 104-93 to Dallas on Wednesday.

After centres Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka left during free agency, the Raptors signed Boucher to a two-year deal reportedly worth US$13.5 million. He’s earning his money, averaging 20.8 points and 8.5 rebounds in the last four games off the bench.

“I’m just trying to figure out a way to get us going,” said Boucher. “Playing defence and bringing energy is what you’re there for. It’s pretty much what I do.”

The 28-year-old said starting or coming off the bench, his role doesn’t change.

“I think they pretty much see what I do: bring energy to the game, play defence, shot-blocking, run the floor and hit threes when I’m open. Starting or not starting, this is my role. I’m good with the way I am,” he said. “I just want to get better. That’s what I’ve been saying since the first game, I want to get better every time.”

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The Raptors, whose strength used to be strong finishes, have been fizzling down the stretch this season, and on Thursday saw an 18-point lead late in the third quarter all but evaporate.

Leading 99-86 to start the fourth, the Raptors went scoreless for nearly five minutes to start the quarter, allowing the Hornets to pull within five points. The Raptors’ hustle on the offensive glass made up for their poor shooting, and Boucher’s rebound and tip-in with 4:03 gave Toronto an eight-point cushion.

Rozier’s basket had Charlotte within three, but Lowry found Boucher under the hoop for an easy dunk and a five-point lead heading into the final minute. After LaMelo Ball’s big dunk sliced the difference to just three, the Hornets regained possession with 9.8 seconds to play, but Rozier’s wide open three-pointer missed the mark, sealing the victory for Toronto.

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““I thought our defence was fantastic in the second half,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said. “That’s what got us back in the game.”

The Raptors were back at their temporary home base in Tampa after going 1-3 on a western road trip, losing their two previous games to Golden State and Portland by just one point in each.

The Raptors offence was solid off the start. They shot 60 per cent from the field and 57 per cent from distance in the first quarter, and Boucher’s sidestep three-pointer with 0.3 left in the frame gave Toronto a 35-34 edge to end the quarter.

Read more: Toronto Raptors won’t have fans at Amalie Arena due to rising coronavirus cases in west Florida

Toronto buckled down on the defensive end in the second, and when rookie Malachi Flynn pitched a long pass to Boucher for an easy basket midway through the quarter the Raptors went up by 15. VanVleet’s three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left sent the Raptors into the halftime break with a 71-62 advantage.

Stanley Johnson’s three late in the third had the Raptors up 97-79, their biggest lead of the game.

Centre Aron Baynes played for the first time since sitting three straight games, as Nurse continues to tinker with that position, but the big man had just two points in seven minutes, and Boucher started the second half in his place.

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The Raptors’ other centre Alex Len missed the game due to personal reasons.

The game was played in front of no fans at Amalie Arena. The Raptors had been one of the few teams in the league permitting a limited number of fans, but amid rising COVID-19 case numbers in western Florida, Vinik Sports Group which owns the Tampa Bay Lightning, announced that no fans would be allowed at NHL or NBA games at Amalie for at least the next few weeks.

The Raptors play the Hornets again on Saturday.

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