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Nuggets edge Heat, 116-113

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Miami overcame an early 12-point deficit, but couldn’t get over the hump.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Everything looked good for the Miami Heat last Wednesday. The Heat blew out the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden that night and leapt to the seventh seed in the East.

In this competitive Eastern Conference playoff race, four days can signify the difference between winning and misery.

The Heat fell to the Denver Nuggets 116-113 Sunday evening, dropping them to 37-40 on the season. Fortunately for Miami, LeBron James played 51 minutes in a double-overtime game against the Indiana Pacers, finishing with 41 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists. The Heat remained in eighth place, but fell a game behind the Chicago Bulls, who won Sunday.

Miami overcame an especially porous defensive first half in which the Nuggets shot 60 percent from the field in the first quarter and ran up 68 points by halftime. The Heat went on a run to tie the game in the the third quarter, though. And a Josh Richardson 3 with 10:08 left put the Heat up 94-93, their first lead of the night.

The game went back-and-forth from there, and three Heat 3-pointers in the final 90 seconds put Miami within 114-113 with 10 seconds left. After a Miami intentional foul and two made Denver free throws, the Heat had a chance to send the game into overtime with a 3. But Miami had no timeouts left, having used the last one to avoid a late-game turnover on an in-bounds pass. In the frantic last nine seconds, Josh Richardson’s 3 missed. The replacement for Dion Waiters in the starting lineup couldn’t replicate Waiters’ late-game heroics.

With both these teams fighting for a playoff berth, many observers should have expected a close game. But Miami’s abysmal defense was inexcusable, even after conceding that Denver is a good offensive team. The Heat’s strategy of fronting players like Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari failed, giving those players easy baskets or trips to the foul line.

The Nuggets also took advantage of the Heat’s lack of size. The 6-foot-10 Danilo Gallinari easily shot over the 6-foot-4 Rodney McGruder, and Erik Spoelstra had Luke Babbitt guard Nikola Jokic early (it worked about as well as when Babbitt had to guard DeMarcus Cousins a couple weeks back). Babbitt strained his right flexor in the third quarter and did not return. If Babbitt misses some time, maybe it will force Spoelstra to do something he should’ve done all along, starting Okaro White in place of Babbitt.

To look at the positive, Josh Richardson’s fourth-quarter production was encouraging. The second-year guard had 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the field, including four 3s. Richardson also blocked three shots, including this nice one. In an otherwise dreary season, Richardson’s play Wednesday in New York and tonight are positive signs.

Richardson’s backcourt mate, Goran Dragic, had another nice game. Dragic finished with 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting from the field and six assists. Hassan Whiteside had a double-double, with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting and 12 rebounds. Whiteside used some quick, decisive post moves to score on Jokic. Willie Reed added eight points and seven boards off the bench, cementing this Whiteside/Reed pairing as the best Heat center combo since Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning.

The Heat will visit the Charlotte Hornets Wednesday night to try and get back on track.