DENVER -- Coach Erik Spoelstra joked before the game how most of his players were struggling with bumps and bruises.
Then Dwyane Wade and Norris Cole left the Heat's game against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center with injuries. Badly shorthanded, the Heat still defeated the Nuggets 97-94 in the final game of a difficult four-game road trip out west. The Heat (24-7) went 3-1 in a series of games that featured one injury after another.
It culminated in the span of a few minutes in the third quarter when Wade and then Cole were both knocked out of the game by hard fouls. Nuggets guard Jordan Hamilton left his feet after a vintage pump fake by Wade, and the two players collided in midair with 29 seconds off the clock in the period.
Wade crumpled to the ground and left the game with 10:55 remaining in the period. He was taken to the locker room for evaluation and was later ruled out with back spasms. But before the Heat's trainers made a decision on Wade, Cole was being helped into the locker room as well.
Cole, who subbed in for Wade, was fouled by Ty Lawson on a fast break under the basket and, immediately, it was clear Cole had sustained a significant injury. Spoelstra jogged out on the court to check on his injured backup point guard before trainers helped Cole to the locker room with a towel over his face.
The injuries to Wade and Cole were the latest setbacks on a road trip beset by injuries. Wade, Cole, LeBron James, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen all missed time, but despite all the hobbled players the Heat still managed to win a pair of close games and defeat the Lakers on Christmas Day.
James missed the Heat's breathtaking victory against the Trail Blazers on Saturday with a strained right groin but returned to action Monday to score 26 points. He also had 10 assists and six rebounds while playing on his 29th birthday.
James' 10th assist found Michael Beasley at the top of the three-point arc, and Beasley drilled the attempt to give Miami a 96-92 lead with 30 seconds left. It was yet another clutch three-pointer on this road trip. Against Portland, Chris Bosh made a game-winning three-pointer with 0.5 seconds remaining.
The backdrop of Saturday's excitement only added to the dramatic finish in Denver.
Down by three points after Ray Allen made 1 of 2 free throws with 15 seconds to go, Nuggets guard Ty Lawon missed a three-pointer to tie with 1.7 seconds to go. Denver had one last chance to tie but turned the ball over.
Bosh had 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Allen finished with 13 points, and Wade had 12 points before leaving the game. Beasley had nine points, and the Heat shot 50.7 percent from the field as a team.
Lawson led the Nuggets (14-16) with 26 points. Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur had 13 points each. Denver outscored Miami 48-28 in the paint.
The Heat trailed 77-72 entering the fourth quarter but tied the game with 8:43 remaining on a three-pointer by Allen. Allen then knocked down a three-pointer with 5:07 to go to give the Heat an 86-82 lead.
A weak-side block by Bosh on a shot by Chandler triggered a fast break that ended in free throws by Mario Chalmers to give the Heat a two-point lead with 3:42 to play. But Arthur drained a 16-footer to tie it again at 87-87, and back and forth the teams went until Beasley's clutch three-pointer.
James showed no signs of injury in the first quarter, scoring nine points and going 2 of 2 from three-point range. He strained his groin muscle during the Heat's game Friday against Sacramento. He then missed the Heat's highly anticipated game against the Trail Blazers on Saturday. The Trail Blazers were tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder with the best record in the Western Conference entering the game.
After a blazing start to the game for both teams, the Heat stumbled in the second quarter and went into halftime trailing 55-46. Backed by 12 points from Lawson, the Nuggets led 30-29 after the first quarter but fell behind by three points early in the second quarter. The Heat shot 55.6 percent in the first quarter but then went 7 of 19 in the second period.
A 14-2 run gave the Nuggets a 46-37 lead with 3:57 left in the first half. But as quickly as the Heat gave away its second-quarter advantage, Miami got it all back early in the third quarter. A three-pointer by Chalmers cut Denver's lead to two points two minutes into the period.
THIS AND THAT
-- Andersen, who has been dealing with back tightness, was a game-time scratch in his first game in Denver since being amnestied by the Nuggets in 2012. Andersen missed the Heat's past three games of the four-game road trip. Andersen had hoped to play against his old team, but team trainers and Spoelstra held him out.
A fan favorite during his two stints with the Nuggets, Andersen received a standing ovation from the Pepsi Center crowd when cameras panned to the Heat's bench during a timeout.
-- James added to his reputation as one of the NBA's most durable players by returning to action only a few days after straining his right groin muscle. It's a problematic injury that has sidelined other players for much longer.
"Yeah, it was a concern, and I went out to warm up in Portland before the game and it didn't feel right," James said. "So, I know 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. So I shut it down from there."
James said proactive stretching and general fitness has kept him healthy to begin his career.
"I feel like I prepare my body to 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," James said.
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