The offseason is rushing toward the Miami Heat now, coming fast as a fist to the face.
It felt like the last home game of this NBA season for Miami on Saturday afternoon. If there can be valor in defeat, maybe this qualified. If fans can feel pride even as they ache, maybe that was the mix of emotions this game caused. Alas, in sports, effort is no consolation. All it gets you is a pat on the back.
The Heat was full of desperation and fight and heart and want in this playoff Game 4, and none if it was enough.
Philadelphia 76ers 106, Heat 102.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
It was one of the hardest-fought, most exciting and nerve-fraying basketball games we have ever witnessed, but in the end all it meant was that Miami carries a 3-1 deficit to Philadelphia for Game 5 on Tuesday, when it will take a gigantic road win to stay alive, and force another game in Miami.
The Heat, so close to tying this series, now must win three in a row — two in Philadelphia — to stay alive in the postseason.
"It's going to be tough," even Hassan Whiteside had to admit.
"Nearly impossible" might work, too.
This is the most physical, intense and acrimonious playoff series in Heat history. And, yes, I was there for all of those brawling, suspension-marred Heat-Knicks postseason series of the late '90s. But talent almost always trumps intangibles like effort and heart, and so the better team is comfortably ahead in this series. Just as the better team won Saturday.
Philly trailed by eight points late in the third quarter when 76ers coach Brett Brown was overheard telling his team during a timeout, "We're right where we want to be, funny enough."
Funny enough, he was right.
See, the Sixers had kept within striking distance despite taking everything Miami had to give, despite a ferociously physical Heat defensive effort that forced Philly into 27 turnovers, including the most in the first half (17) in any playoff game since 1999.
Miami had every reason to win this game, but ultimately found every way to lose it.
The Heat's frustration may be summarized in this postgame observation from Sixers star Joel Embiid: "We had  turnovers, I had a really bad game and then we didn't knock down threes like we've been doing , and we still ended up winning."
Said Brown: "I'm shocked we won this game. We didn't really have a right."
Embiid shot only 2-for-11 and was harassed into eight turnovers, Ben Simmons had seven giveaways, and Philly shot a dreadful 7-for-31 from threeville. Not enough for Miami.
Whiteside finally woke up with a decent gamer, 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting and 13 rebounds. And Josh Richardson set a Heat playoff record with seven steals. Not enough.
Dwyane Wade, clutch once again, had 25 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter and Miami's last eight. Not enough.
Miami ultimately has itself to blame for the crater it is in.
The team that lost by four points missed 12 free throws.
"We've got to capitalize. They're free," as Josh Richardson put it.
The team that saw a 12-point second half lead melt like a snowball on South Beach has now been outscored by 65 points after halftime in these four games.
"Couple of mental lapses, defensive breakdowns," said Richardson, who injured a shoulder in the game but came back. "That can't happen."
The bandage over Justise Winslow's left eye hiding the four stitches he got Thursday was a snapshot of how high-pitched and brutal this game and series have been, but he didn't mean physical pain when he said after the game, "This one hurts."
Winslow was fined $15,000 by the NBA for intentionally stepping on the protective mask Embiid is wearing this series. That was in Game 3. "Little do they knew we have about 50 of them," said a smiling Embiid.
It's a fair metaphor for this series.
No matter what the Heat does, Philly has an answer. The 76ers always have more in reserve.
Oddly this is only the second-ever playoff meeting between these two clubs, and oh how the script has flipped since the first.
Heat and Sixers met in the 2011 postseason — the first year of LeBron James and the Big 3 era — and Miami steamrolled helpless Philly in five games. Seven years later it's Philadelphia in command and Miami's hopes on life support. appearing hopeless. Then, the Sixers had no answers for LeBron and Wade. Now, the Heat have no answers, period.
I predicted the Heat would win this series in an upset, in six games. It might have been my worst prediction since saying that whole internet thing would never catch on. I didn't overestimate Miami. I underestimated Philly. The Heat might have had a chance had Embiid missed the entire series. Might have. But once the Masked Marauder joined the festivities in Game 3, and now down 3-1, the Heat is left trying to climb a greased flagpole.
"We can feel sorry for ourselves and go home, but that's not us," said Goran Dragic. "We still have a chance, so..."
The Heat still have a chance, technically, but the realistic one ran away from it in Saturday's second half.
There is another game to play, but the season ended Saturday, and nobody knows it better than the home team that had hope in its hands and couldn't hold it.
And so now the offseason is coming, fast as a fist to the face.