BOSTON - The Sixers packed up their belongings from the visitor's locker room inside TD Garden to leave for Philadelphia.
They thought they would be doing so to head back for Game 6 at the Wells Fargo Center.
Instead, they are returning for exit interviews and to break for the offseason.
Some players had a look of "did that really just happen?" Others searched for words to describe how they felt less than an hour after their promising season came to a halt. The Sixers' Game 5 elimination at the hands of the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals came too soon for them.
"We obviously did some great things, but our season shouldn't be over at this point in my opinion," T.J. McConnell said after Wednesday's 114-112 loss (see observations).
Even after falling down 3-0 and being faced with a tall task that 130 NBA teams had failed to do, the Sixers maintained the belief they could be the group that would come back to win a best-of-seven series. They captured Game 4 at home to send the series back on the road and were a possession away down the stretch from forcing another matchup Friday (see highlights).
But by Friday, they will be beginning their summers while the Celtics are prepping for Game 1 against the Cavaliers.
"Shocked, honestly," Robert Covington said. "We didn't expect to be going home this early. As a unit, everyone knew that we had a lot to give. It's just unfortunate that we came up short."
The Sixers' success this season may have been just as surprising to some. It's not often a team goes from 28 wins to 52, clinches the third seed in its conference and closes out the regular season with 16 straight victories. The Sixers set goals for themselves along the way, which grew bigger and bigger as their win total increased. By the time they eliminated the Heat in Game 5 during the first round, they believed they were a force to be reckoned with.
"I was very disappointed," JJ Redick said. "Maybe not in October, but certainly now, we felt like we were a team that was capable of contending for a championship. Boston is another team that is capable as well. They were just better in the series."
The Celtics strategized to limit the Sixers' strengths, including honing in on Ben Simmons and limiting three-point looks. They also rolled out a number of feisty offensive weapons that took turns being effective. The Sixers countered with a Game 4-winning adjustment of starting McConnell, but the Celtics started out the series too strong.
"I feel like we had more," Joel Embiid said. "We've got a lot of talented guys. We didn't play our best. Some games some guys were playing well, some games they didn't. But we feel like when everybody's on, we're unbeatable. But we committed a lot of mistakes. We've got to learn from it, but we definitely have more to show."
The Sixers have been in the position of catching the playoffs from a distance plenty of times. This is different, though. They believed they should be the team others are watching from afar.
"I always feel incredibly empty," Brett Brown said. "You wake up in the middle of the night tonight, you're like, 'No!' You'll do the same tomorrow. It doesn't go away."