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The Raptors new starting lineup gives them the identity they’ve been missing

With the Toronto Raptors committing, at least for now, to their small starting lineup, they have finally carved out a team identity they can ride to on-court success.

Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks

On Tuesday, the Toronto Raptors defeated the Milwaukee Bucks with an impressive all-around performance. Prior to the game, the eleventh-hour announcement of OG Anunoby’s return to the lineup was quickly outshined by that of the starting lineup. Coach Nick Nurse had decided to run with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam, and Raptors Twitter, who had long been pining for this look, was subsequently set ablaze. The fanbase’s dreams had become reality.

The elation from having our prayers answered was only surpassed that which came from watching the squad in action, as the Raptors had one of its most impressive, balanced wins of the season — coming as it did against a quality opponent and with valuable contributions from up-and-down the roster. Most importantly, however, it also gave Toronto the potential for a defining identity going forward.

To suggest that one win has changed the outlook of Toronto’s season entirely may be foolish. To ignore all the positive signs from Tuesday night’s game in Milwaukee may however be equally unwise.

You need not look beyond the bags under my eyes (or Nurse’s for that matter) to understand this has been a particularly frustrating season. Much of that frustration came from the fact that turning on the Raptors game was like flipping on the Masked Singer. We had no idea who we’d be seeing on a given night. That was true with the style and quality of play, as well as which players we’d actually see on the court and for how long.

Aron Baynes was a starter, then he was glued to the bench entirely. Alex Len was a starter, then he was kindly (or maybe not so kindly) asked not to come back to the Raptors. Stanley Johnson was the seventh man for like two games. Baynes began starting again. We forgot DeAndre Bembry was on the team for a time, and it now appears he is one of the most valuable reserves.

Sometimes the Raptors’ defense was dominant, sometimes the team filled up the nets. Other times, they were a sieve on D and would go forgo scoring for quarters at a time. Various lineup iterations gave flashes of excitement followed by inexcusable stretches of play. Overall, this was a team that clearly did not know who they were — a far cry from last season’s team-wide self-assuredness.

Enter the Florida Five — Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Anunoby, and Siakam.

(Or, as a friend of mine recommended: 5outhern Ice. Look, we’ll figure the name out — I’m open to suggestions.)

The Raptors lineup Nurse trotted out to start against the Milwaukee Bucks has the opportunity to change those identity problems. When those five are on the floor together, the team has a clear, tangible style that makes life hell for its opponents. It also sets off a ripple effect that positively reverberates through the rest of the team. Nurse’s apprehension for completely turning the keys over to this lineup is understandable, but frankly, he’s got a peacock on his hands. At a certain point, you gotta let it fly.

Simply put, this group sucks to play against. A snarling pack of wolves, the Florida Five has no weak link on either end of the ball. They are all fast, athletic, and a little ornery. Defensively, they are switchy and play on a string with one another. On offense, everyone can create a shot, and everyone can hit an open three. There is no reprieve, no hiding a weak defender or sending extra help without compromising another spot.

Starting and closing with these guys sets a tone for both the opponent and the reserves coming off the bench. They will be relentless, they will make their opponent work, and they will do so without a centre. VanVleet, Lowry, Powell, Anunoby, and Siakam have long contributed to the identity of the team. It is now that they must set it as a unit.

In last year’s playoffs, when we first really got a feel for this group, they outscored the Boston Celtics 45-38 overall. A small margin in a small sample, but that is notable in a gritty seven-game-series. This season, the sample is similarly small, and the numbers are similarly positive. In only 81 possessions, the Florida Five is outscoring opponents at a rate of 11.1 points per 100 possessions, holding opponents to 90.1 points per 100, according to the Cleaning the Glass.

The offense has not blown the doors of the opponent yet, but the defense has done more than enough to hold down the fort. With these players, the offense will undoubtedly improve, and while the defense is a tad unsustainable, that they have been so good without a centre should be of note. They showed off their speed and aggression early against Milwaukee, racking up a couple steals in the first few minutes.

Going small like this creates accountability on defense, as an aggressive, switch-heavy defense forces each piece to be on a string. If any player is a little lazy in communicating or rotating, the whole thing falls apart. There is no Marc Gasol waiting on the back end to clean up mistakes. Thus far, this forced engagement has been positive for the Raptors — particularly from Siakam, who was been a tad inconsistent in his approach on D this season.

Nurse has often altered his lineups to his opponents. With the personnel in years past, that has worked. Now, it would be nice to see him be proactive, not reactionary. Making Toronto’s opponents adjust to them could give the team an advantage. Yes, it is hard to match a centre without a big of your own — a couple games against Joel Embiid in the next week will certainly provide an interesting test. But it also quite hard for a centre to chase around five speedsters who can draw him away from the rim with shooting.

The sustainability of going small is a question mark, but, as VanVleet has noted, there is not much of a choice, considering the way the team has played otherwise.

With the Florida Five as the core, there is a clear path for the reserves to slot in effectively too. Chris Boucher or DeAndre’ Bembry can easily swap in for one of the core guys — Bembry brings a little extra defense with a little less offense than, say, Norm; and Boucher injects some unhinged energy in the frontcourt. Boucher was excellent in that role after Lowry went down with an ankle injury on Tuesday. Aron Baynes, who has clearly been overmatched by opposing starters, came off the bench and made a positive impact against the Bucks. Perhaps that should have been his role from the start.

Yuta Watanabe and Stanley Johnson also have clear qualities — versatility and hustle — that can see them get some minutes without sacrificing that core identity. When the team is coming out hard early and has confidence closing the game with their best players, everything in between has a way of falling into place.

If this small-ball identity continues to impress, that hypothetical Andre Drummond trade, which would almost certainly involve Norman Powell, makes even less sense. In the NBA, depth is important, but winning often comes down to a team’s best five. With Drummond, the identity becomes less clear, and Toronto’s top five gets a little worse. That does not mean we could not use some centre depth, but not at the expense of a good thing for Toronto.

With the Florida Five at the heart of the team, the Raptors identity comes into focus. It provides consistency for the team, and the style of play forces team-wide buy-in. Playing the best players as much as possible eliminates the “What if?” potential for the team. With these guys, the Toronto Raptors, at worst, can go out on their shield, knowing exactly who they are.