Rick Carlisle took one look across the locker room filled with dejected, heartbroken Indiana Pacers and couldn't help but smile.

"I was really proud to be in that locker room with a bunch of guys that aren't satisfied," Carlisle said after the Pacers were eliminated by Detroit in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. "They're really hurt by this evening."

After watching a record-breaking season come to a disappointing end, the Pacers are more determined than ever to get to the NBA Finals.

And as painful as the loss to Detroit was, players and coaches say it probably had to happen if the young team is to take the next step toward a championship.

"Simply put, it wasn't our time," Carlisle said.

While the Pacers' core had never played in the Eastern Conference finals before, the Pistons were swept last year by New Jersey in the series, which provided much of the fuel for this season's run.

"They put in their time," Jermaine O'Neal said. "I'm guessing we have to put in ours. They got to this point last year and didn't make it and we got to this point this year and didn't make it."

When Carlisle took over the young, volatile group less than a month before the season began, few expected the kind of success that followed.

Indiana won a franchise-record 61 games in the regular season, won a playoff series for the first time in four years and dominated the Eastern Conference the entire regular season.

But poor shooting and injuries to O'Neal, Jamaal Tinsley and Al Harrington caught up with the inexperienced Pacers against the playoff-tested Pistons.

Just getting that far is something the Pacers can take pride in. Still, they're not big on moral victories.

"It was great," Pacers President Larry Bird said of the team's season. "The only thing is, now we have to go through the whole regular season and another two rounds of the playoffs to get there again."

It's a task the Pacers are well equipped to accomplish. Nearly every player is signed at least through next season, including the nucleus of 25-year old O'Neal, and 24-year olds Ron Artest and Harrington.

Just as important, possibly, is that the Pacers now have the necessary sting that most championship teams get before they win the big one.

"You gain experience," O'Neal said. "We gotta be able to come back. Everybody's hurting a little bit. Hopefully they have a long memory."

O'Neal took the loss as hard as anyone. He injured his left knee in Game 4 and wasn't the same dominating presence he was in the regular season.

After the loss, O'Neal slumped in front of his locker, wearing a large ice bag on his left knee and a crushed look on his face. He says he faces a four- to six-month recovery time for a slight ligament tear and probably won't play in the summer Olympics in Athens.

"I want to apologize to the state of Indiana for not bringing a finals appearance," O'Neal said. "The obstacles were too high for us."

So the Pacers begin their offseason about two weeks sooner than they had hoped, but eager to put the past behind them.

"There's a bad taste in our mouth," said Tinsley, whose injured left leg limited him to just three and a half minutes in Game 6. "L.A. and Detroit are playing in the finals, and we're going home."

Just how many of the Pacers will be back for another run at a title is still unclear.

Reggie Miller is 38 and may consider retiring after his latest flirtation with that ever-elusive NBA title proved to be just that.

Miller wouldn't answer questions about his future after the game, but Bird and the rest of the Pacers said they want him back for an 18th season.

"It would be great to have him around," Bird said. "Only a player knows when it's time to go. Hopefully it's not too soon. It's his decision."

Backup point guard Kenny Anderson said he won't be back unless he can get more consistent minutes next season.

Bird said he and CEO Donnie Walsh haven't made any personnel decisions yet. With six of their top players 26 years old or younger, they have a strong foundation to build on.

"I think they learned a lot in the last two to three weeks," Bird said. "They did a lot of growing up. They showed a lot of heart and I'm proud of them, but they would have got this series if they would have stuck together."

"Simply put, it wasn't our time," Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle said. Six of Indiana's top players are 26 years old or younger.