Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey firmly believes his team is ahead of schedule in the building process, despite the sting of playoff elimination.
Casey, who took over in Toronto in 2011 with the team well short of playoff contention, guided his team to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, even while his own future at the helm was being questioned in some quarters.
And despite a 4-2 series defeat to LeBron James and the juggernaut Cleveland Cavaliers, Casey feels the Raptors are just getting started.
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A STEP AHEAD
“I really think we’re a step ahead in the process,” he explained. “We’re still a relatively young team to talk about competing for a championship but they put themselves in that position with hard work and by fighting through things.
“We still have a way to go, and that next step is probably the biggest step we have to take as an organization. It’s not going to be easy.
"Now the target is on our backs. Being one of the last four teams left [in the playoffs], we should be proud but not satisfied."
With the series tied at 2-2, it was the more seasoned Cleveland team who found an extra gear to take control and reach the NBA Finals, with James taking over early in game six to set the tone.
And Casey pointed to the contrasting playoff experience as a decisive factor - and how valuable this playoff run has been for his own team's development.
“This is a tremendous learning experience,” he said. “I was trying to sprinkle that in the entire series. Every situation was new for us. I loved the way we responded after the first two games. I thought we realised where we were and what we were into.
“But this team [Cleveland] understood the moment. They understood when to push the pedal to the metal and when to let up and pick their spots. That’s what you have to do.
“It’s not just about playing hard. It’s about attention to detail. This is the first time we’ve been there [to the Conference Finals]. Cleveland have been there before – they were there last year. We’re not where they are right now, but we’re going to be."
Casey said he had already spoken with his players about specific areas to work on during the off-season. The Raptors shifted perceptions across the league with their run in these playoffs and there is plenty to build on. And so the hard work continues.