This was Hassan Whiteside's moment. His time. His night. His best opportunity yet to declare how good he really is by standing up to the best, on the playoff stage, in a game weighing so heavily on this first-round NBA series.
A 7-foot, 265-pound man, and his team couldn't find him.
In the Miami Heat's 128-108 Game 3 playoff loss to Philadelphia here Thursday night, Whiteside whispered with five points and only two rebounds in 13 minutes. He had four fouls. He had no field goal attempts all night until the middle of the fourth quarter. His counterpart Joel Embiid returned from injury for the 76ers and had 23 points and seven rebounds.
This was the night Miami had to figure out a way to get Whiteside going in this series, but didn't, hence the Heat's 2-1 series hole entering Saturday's Game 4 matinee back in the downtown bayside arena.. It is impossible to pin any defeat on one player, but also difficult to reconcile that the difference in this game wasn't Embiid's palpable impact vs. Whiteside's utter lack of it.
"My job is to figure out how to get to his strengths [offensively]," said coach Erik Spoelstra afterward.
Well, tick-tock, Spo.
It was a dispiriting defeat because so much went right for Miami, which made 16 of 33 three-point shots and got 23 points from Goran Dragic and 19 from Justise Winslow.
It was in many ways an exhilarating night, too, but for the late fade, a night full of drama.
This was in the moments before an in-bounds pass, and the Sixers' Justin Anderson kept aggressively getting up at Dwyane Wade, quite literally, nose to nose. Suddenly Anderson recoiled as Wade seemed to blow in his face..
Not long after that little tableau came their baseline fracas in front of the Heat bench, when Anderson appeared to send his left forearm across Wade's face and No. 3 shoved back — both getting a technical foul as the noise in the downtown bayside arena went sonic.
Oh my but we've missed nights like this — the electric, nothing-else-like it brutal ballet of playoff basketball. The glares, the stares, the elbows. The referees earned their pay as the game stayed chippy front to back, the residue of stage, and stakes..
This was the Miami Heat's first home playoff game in two years. OK, well, in 706 days, or one year, 11 months and six days, but who's counting? It seemed longer. It felt longer. It was worth the wait. Until the end.
I think we took for granted home playoff games during the Big 3 era, when there were so many, so relentlessly, and the early rounds were perfunctory, the tension not really starting until the conference finals, if then.
It's different now as the diminished Heat — scrappy where the superstars used to be — must fight for everything and even getting past the first round is no given.
It's up to the Heat, as usual, to deliver us to the postseason and all its drama and noise. It has been 35 combined seasons of Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers with no home playoff games. So I guess we can we can forgive the Heat that one-year hiccup.
The Heat's return to this stage has been one of escalating drama, from a Game 1 blowout loss to a Game 2 equalizer led by Wade to Thursday night's back and forth. And you get the feeling this thing is really just starting.
"Neither team has a blueprint," as Wade put it. "It's a seven-game series."
Said Spoelstra: "There is no time to be comfortable."
Thursday there barely was time to breathe as the lead flipped to and fro, every basket seeming like a huge one, until Philly's late pull-away.
The night and the Wade/Anderson altercation continued a series full of drama, some silly, some not.
Remember Wade staring icicles at 76ers-jersey-wearing comedian Kevin Hart standing courtside, and later Tweeting that his (former?) friend wasn't welcome in Miami?
Or Justise Winslow calling Ben Simmons a two-word phrase I'd be embarrassed to say in front of my mother? (Serious cojones on Winslow, by the way, given the two player's respective career trajectories).
There was Embiid complaining on Instagram he was "sick and tired of being babied" — which evidently worked, given his return Thursday. Embiid also had called Whiteside "soft," igniting a social-media war between the two..
Then Goran Dragic and Philaldephia's Marco Belinelli kept jawing at each other in Game 3.
Oh, and Winslow at one point "accidentally" stepped on the Phantom of the Opera mask Embiid wore to protect his recently fractured orbital bone.
"We had [a backup mask] in the bullpen," said Sixers coach Brett Brown with a smile.
Delicioso, all of it.
It made for a frantic, physical, entertaining game.
Alas, it also made for a game that found Heat fans afterward spilling from the arena too quiet into the night.
Almost as quiet as Hassan Whiteside's game had been.