The Miami Heat’s uphill battle continues and with only five games left they’re getting dangerously close to running out of opportunities to get to where they want to go.
Sunday, Danilo Gallinari and the Denver Nuggets hung another devastating loss at home on the Heat 116-113.
But thanks to 41 points from old friend LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers hung on in double overtime to beat the Indiana Pacers, leaving the Heat in the eighth and final playoff spot with less than 10 days remaining in the regular season.
“I mean this is like our playoffs right now and it’s been like that for awhile now,” coach Erik Spoelstra said after the Heat (37-40) lost for the fourth time in its last five home games. “Our guys are laying it all out there, but we just haven’t been able to get the job done these last couple games. Now, we just have to be able to quiet all the noise. I want the guys to be able to take a day off [Monday] and get back to work on Tuesday to bring a better, more consistent game on Wednesday and Wednesday night [in Charlotte] and to really prepare for that.
“We’ve spent a lot of time and made a lot of progress learning how to win this season and I've really enjoyed seeing that growth and progress and learning how to make winning plays at the end. Now, we’re going to have to learn how to win under the context of these games and their meaning and that’s a different level of basketball. We are capable of going to the next level, and we're going to need to obviously to get this job done.”
Gallinari led Denver with 29 points and hit arguably the biggest dagger of the night when he buried a three-pointer with 2:13 remaining to put Denver up 110-104.
The Heat got three big three-pointers late from Josh Richardson, James Johnson and Tyler Johnson, but never caught the Nuggets (36-40) who kept their own fading playoff hopes alive as they try to chase down the Portland Trail Blazers (38-38) for the final playoff spot out West.
Richardson took Miami’s last shot and air-balled a deep three-pointer as the clock expired.
“Goran [Dragic] kicked it up to me and I looked at the shot, but two guys were close on me so I kicked it back to G and he drove it and I just tried to create space for a shot,” Richardson said. “They guarded the play well. I just took the look I had. The clock was about to run out.”
Before Richardson took Miami’s final shot, Spoelstra said it looked to him like Nikola Jokic had traveled as he attempted to inbound a pass with 10.8 seconds to play and the Nuggets clinging to a 114-113 lead.
Twice Jokic burned 20 seconds time outs as he attempted find an open teammate, but the Nuggets retained possession and finally got it right on the third try when he found Jamal Murray, who eventually went to the free throw line and made both shots.
“Ronny [Garretson] is a great official,” Spoelstra said. “He’s got 35 years of experience. I’m actually surprised he didn’t make the call. It will probably come out that it was a travel. The first one definitely looked like he traveled. The second one I would say he didn't travel, but stepped over [the line] from my view.”
Dragic led Miami with 22 points and six assists and Hassan Whiteside had 16 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks, but the Heat never took control of Sunday’s game. Much like Friday night’s loss to the Knicks, Miami trailed from the start and never led by more than a point.
Miami finally grabbed its first lead of the game at 94-93 on a Richardson three-pointer with 10:08 remaining in the fourth quarter and had the lead only twice in the final period for a combined 52 seconds.
Jokic had 19 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists and helped set the tone early with 11 of Denver’s first 21 points.
The Nuggets came into Sunday’s game first offensive rating (114.1) and averaging the second-most points in the league 114.9 points since Jan. 12. Denver scored 68 points in the first half – the most allowed by the Heat in the first half this season – and were up 10 at the intermission.
The Heat finally tied it at 79 on a Dragic runner with 5:05 left in the third quarter. But the Nuggets scored the next six points to retake control and went into the fourth quarter ahead 93-87.
“New York was different than tonight,” Spoelstra said. “They came in with an absolustely clear mind, free mind and were absolutely gun slinging from the beginning. This team came in with great desparation. They knew they had to come in with their best game, their plan for something and they played great throughout the course of the game. They played their game. They imposed their identity. They were consistent to it more often than we were consintent to ours.”
▪ Heat forward Luke Babbitt left Sunday’s game midway through the third quarter with a strained right hip flexor and didn’t return.