MIAMI - The 76ers are trying to chop down an oak tree with a butter knife.

That's what this feels like.

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For almost every minute of Saturday afternoon's Game 1 at AmericanAirlines Arena, the Sixers dropped their heads, sweat pouring from their brows, and tried to slay the monster.

They tried and they tried and they tried.

And when it was over, the Miami Heat had won anyway, 97-89.

The Heat swiped the first game of this best-of-seven, first-round Eastern Conference playoff series and didn't even seem particularly pleased with the performance.

For example, immediately after the game, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra dropped this little nugget: "We'll take this first win. Hopefully, who we've been the last few weeks will be more who we'll be the rest of the series. Particularly offensively, we weren't very efficient."

This is the equivalent of landing what you believe is a solid punch, then noticing your opponent didn't so much as flinch.

There was this, too, from Miami guard James Jones: "I think a lot of it has to do with our concentration, our movement, but you also have to take your hat off to Philly . . . we understand they're a tough, gritty team."

This sounded a bit like wrapping an arm around the persevering upstart and giving him a nice hearty slap on the back for effort.

Miami absolutely respects the Sixers' tenacity, but Miami is also keenly aware of its superiority.

Spoelstra mentioned that perhaps his team became bogged down by its own playoff excitement: There was a full team dinner on Friday night and an overly animated practice - like kids who'd been cooped up all winter - on Friday afternoon.

Spoelstra said he suspected the Heat would be more grounded for Game 2, which is scheduled for Monday night in Miami.

"We couldn't wait to get in here and get things started," said Miami guard Dwyane Wade, who finished with 17 points. "I think next game will be even better."

Gulp.

"We know it's not going to be easy," said Sixers guard Lou Williams. "So we just know - it's no secret."

At the end of the first quarter, the Sixers led by 31-19 and had the whiteout crowd - all 19,600 in attendance were given white Nike "Witness" T-shirts - groaning in frustration. The Heat pulled themselves together in the second and the third, posting 61 points across those two quarters and turning a 14-point deficit into a 16-point lead, and then crash-landed at the finish line, ahead by a nose.

With 1 minute, 51 seconds remaining in the game, the Sixers had possession of the ball, down only by 90-87. Sixers power forward Elton Brand missed a dead-on, 15-foot jumper that he routinely drains.

"It looked like they were going to run us out and we fought back and we had a great chance." said Sixers coach Doug Collins. "I told our guys down the stretch, 'If we could have written the script, this is where we'd want to be.' "

Collins also listed the many statistics that showed how the Sixers excelled: limiting stars LeBron James and Wade to a combined 10 for 27 from the floor, collecting 22 assists, committing only 9 turnovers, getting 20 points from reserve Thaddeus Young, forcing 14 turnovers, holding Miami to 41.9 percent shooting from the floor and 23.5 percent from beyond the arc.

It's a long list. And somehow when you scan it, it still ends with an 'L.'

"There's always room for improvement when you lose, but I thought we came out strong," Williams said.

The Sixers absolutely did, which could be the most worrisome thing of all.

Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at kfagan@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/DeepSixer3 and read her blog, Deep Sixer, on Philly.com.