DENVER -- It was a road trip of attrition, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Chris Andersen and Norris Cole all missing time on the sojourn from Los Angeles to Sacramento to Portland to Denver.
Somehow, the Heat managed to come through at the finish, slipping past the Denver Nuggets 97-94 Monday night at the Pepsi Center, in a game that ended with Wade, Cole and Andersen unavailable to coach Erik Spoelstra.
James, back after missing Saturday's victory in Portland due to a strained right groin, led the Heat with 26 points and 10 assists, none bigger than the last one to forward Michael Beasley for a 3-pointer with 30 seconds to play that put the Heat up four.
Heat center Chris Bosh added 17 points, with Allen scoring 13 and Beasley nine.
Point guard Ty Lawson led the Nuggets with 26 points.
The Heat closed the trip 3-1, with the lone loss to the Kings in overtime,
After sitting out the morning shootaround due to knee tendinitis, Allen warmed up in the fourth quarter, with his second 3-pointer of the period giving the Heat an 86-82 lead with 5:07 to play.
Later, a block by Bosh and a tip-ahead by James sent Heat point guard Mario Chalmers to the line with the Heat up 86-85.
With the Heat 16 of 25 from the line to that point, and Chalmers 0 for 2 at that stage, Chalmers made only the second of those free throws, for an 87-85 Heat lead.
The teams then traded baskets, before a 3-pointer by Lawson put the Nuggets up 90-89 with 2:48 to play.
James responded with a jumper on the other end for a 91-90 Heat lead with 2:21 left, with a running Allen jumper pushing the Heat lead to 93-90 with 1:36 to play.
The Nuggets then got a dunk from forward Wilson Chandler to close within 93-92 with 50.7 seconds left.
The Heat then went top James, who drove on Chandler before passing out to Beasley at the top of the circle for a 3-pointer and a 96-92 lead with 30 seconds to play.
A too-easy driving runner by Randy Foye drew Denver within 96-94 with 25.1 seconds left.
Allen then was fouled with 15.4 seconds, after the Nuggets first waited to see if they could get the ball into the hands of another Heat player, but made only the first of his two free throws.
That opened the door for a Lawson 3-pointer, but he was off. Denver controlled the ball with 1.8 seconds left off a rebound scramble that went out of bounds. Denver then was called for a five-second violation, unable to get off a final shot.
It was rollercoaster for the Heat through the opening three periods.
The Heat jumped to an 8-0 lead, but after a dynamic recovery led by Lawson, it was the Nuggets who held a 30-29 lead going into the second period.
The Heat then shot 7 of 19 in the second period and were limited to 17 points in the quarter, to fall behind 55-46 at the intermission.
And then, even after the Heat opened the third quarter with a 13-0 run, they still wound up trailing 77-72 after what proved to be a costly third period.
The Heat wound up losing both Wade and Cole in the third period.
Wade was lost in the quarter for the balance of the game with back spasms after taking a hard, inadvertent foul from Jordan Hamilton 29 seconds into the second half.
He then replaced by Cole, who took a hard foul from Lawson and fell face front to the court along the baseline with 8:46 left in the third period.
With Cole forced to the locker room and unable to shoot his free throws he was, by rule, lost for the game. Nuggets coach Brian Shaw then selected Joel Anthony from the Heat's bench to shoot Cole's two free throws.
Anthony, the lone Heat player to that stage yet to take a free throw this season, then made both, to complete the Heat's quarter-opening 13-0 run. Heat forward Shane Battier then fouled intentionally so Anthony could leave the game.
Ironically, the Heat were called for delay of game because Anthony had helped Cole to the locker room and was not immediately available to shoot the free throws.
The Heat were not helped by their foul shooting, 16 of 24 from the line entering the fourth quarter.
James was back in the lineup on his 29th birthday after sitting out Saturday's victory over the Portland Trail Blazers due to a strained right groin.
"The last couple of days I got extensive therapy," he said. "I felt better and better each and every hour.
"It's fun to play the game that I love on my birthday."
He nonetheless played a somewhat passive game, often settling for jump shots.
While the mileage on James' body over his 11 NBA seasons has been severe, considering James' extended playoff runs and time with the U.S. national team, Spoelstra said it's not as if there are signs that his star forward is slowing down.
"He takes care of his body. He really takes care of his body," Spoelstra said. "And I think that's where science, education and commitment from pro athletes now is different than it was 25 years ago. He's in our building all the time doing corrective exercises, conditioning, flexibility. He's conscious of his nutrition.
"These things are different than what they were before, so players can extend. Ray Allen 1/8thriving at 383/8 is not a coincidence. When you really take care of your body, you can play longer and extend it longer than you probably could have in the previous generation."
James said he has made a concerted effort to maintain his health amid his extensive playing time.
"I feel like I prepare my body the best way I can, to when I do have an injury I'm able to bounce back really fast in my career so far," he said. "And, obviously, I will hope it can last for my career. But we'll see how that goes.
"But I've been able to prepare my body in the offseason and throughout the season where any time I have an injury, either with an ankle or back or groin or whatever, I'm able to bounce back."
Spoelstra said James also is wise beyond his 29 years.
"He has a high intellect for the game," he said. "He studies the game. He's a student of the game. He watches, so he picks up things very quickly, and that allows him to be as athletic as he is.
"He does a lot of things that you can't teach. But he does a lot of things from the experiences he's learned, also seeing and watching and being attentive."
James said he felt he had no choice but to sit out Saturday.
"It's a couple of injuries in our league that you don't really want to mess with too much, and the groin and the hamstring are two of them," he said.
Andersen missed his third consecutive game Monday due to back and neck soreness. He previously played for the Nuggets before Denver cut him as an amnesty release in the 2012 offseason. He received a warm ovation when announced on the public-address system in the first half.
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