by James Jia, Yan Zhonghua
TORONTO, May 4 (Xinhua) -- Toronto Raptors' Cinderella-season ended on Sunday afternoon when the team was eliminated from the playoffs in a 104-103 loss to Brooklyn Nets in game 7 of their first-round NBA series.
"I'm proud of our guys, the way they battled the entire year," said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey after the team's final game of the 2013-14 campaign.
At the beginning of the season, expectations were low for Casey's Raptors, a team that had not reached the post-season in six seasons and appeared destined for a top pick in the upcoming NBA draft lottery.
A total of 19 games into the season, Toronto's chances of ending their playoff drought appeared gloomy with a 7-12 record in early December.
On Dec. 9, everything changed for Casey's squad when general manager Masai Ujiri orchestrated a seven-player trade that featured forward Rudy Gay moving to Sacramento.
In return, Toronto acquired four veteran players in Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez and John Salmons to give the bench needed depth.
The loss of Gay meant Toronto's starting line-up would feature sparingly used sophomore, Terrence Ross.
The addition of Ross meant Toronto's starting line-up would be one of the youngest in the league with an average age of 24.2.
Along with Ross, sophomore-center Jonas Valanciunas, guard Kyle Lowry, forwards Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan rounded out Toronto's starting five that also combined for 24 total playoff games played.
Despite the lack of experience and the possibility of more trades to come, the new-look Raptors did not give up.
The resilient group went on an 8-3 run immediately after the trade to reach the .500 mark (15-15) and move into first place in the Atlantic division.
As the season progressed, Raptors continued their turnaround with the same starting line-up, finishing with a franchise-best 48-34 record, good for third place in the Eastern Conference.
Not only did Casey's squad exceed expectations of many experts from the start of the season, the team had snapped their six-year playoff drought and captured the franchise's second-ever Atlantic division title.
Since the December trade, Casey maintained the young starting line-up to give Valanciunas and Ross a chance to make mistakes and learn from them. The result was a 41-22 record since the Dec. 9 trade; the best record in the Eastern Conference during the period.
Despite the team's regular season success, Casey approached the playoffs with the same mentality as he did all season; an underdog team playing with no expectations.
"I've said this before the series started, we're not a finished product. We're taking steps there, we're on our way there," said a humble Casey following the game 7 loss to Nets on Sunday. "Everybody wants to rush the process, we're still not there."
The 4-3 series loss against Brooklyn Nets gave Casey's young starters seven games of experiences each, increasing their total from 24 to 59.
"This playoff run is nothing but positives for these young men. If anybody thinks anything different doesn't know basketball," Casey said. "Each game a player, a young player grew and learned something. This group has a lot of basketball in front of them."
The most critical ingredient to Toronto's successful season was the emergence of forward DeMar DeRozan.
The 24-year-old DeRozan ranked ninth in the league with 22.7 points and fourth in free throws made with 519.
DeRozan's performance earned him a selection into the All-Star game as a reserve, the fourth ever Raptor player to be selected.
"DeMar has grown from a skinny kid from Compton to who he is now, an All-Star. Should be an All-Star for many years to come," said Casey as he reflects on DeRozan's growth. "His growth and his steps that he's taken are unbelievable. I think the sky will be the limit for him. He's going to be special."
As the team head into the offseason, the biggest question marks are the future of Casey and Lowry. Both are not under contract for next season and are free to sign elsewhere.
"I don't know the answer to either one of those. That is something to be handled in the next couple of weeks in my situation," said Casey. "The city should hope that he's (Lowry) back. He grew up in so many ways, not only as a basketball player but as a man."
Should Lowry and Casey both return, the starting line-up will be one year older at 25.2 and use their playoff experience against Nets to make deeper runs in the future.
"If we're all back here, they're going to be special," Casey smiled.