It is one thing being forced to play to every last breath. The Miami Heat seemingly have built their season on such a close-game premise.
It is another thing to do it at mile-high altitude.
That raised the ante Friday night against the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena.
That, despite an eight-point fourth-quarter lead, also left the Heat gasping at the finish in what turned into a 124-119 loss at the start of a five-game trip that continues Saturday night against the Utah Jazz.
“We needed to get some critical stops,” Heat guard Max Strus said, “and we didn’t do it.”
In the decisive fourth quarter, when the Heat were outscored 39-29, the Nuggets shot .812 from the field, including 5 of 5 on 3-pointers, as well as 8 of 10 on 3-pointers.
“In the fourth quarter they just got basically anything,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
“We pride ourselves in being able to find a way to win games with defensive stops going down the stretch and I can’t recall a stop in the last three or four minutes. I’m sure maybe there was one, but I just don’t remember it. It seemed like they were scoring or getting fouled on every single one of those possessions.”
With Nuggets guard Jamal Murray taking control late, the Nuggets improved to 23-12, with the Heat falling back to .500 at 18-18.
“The thing about it,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said, “we don’t want to be mediocre. We don’t want to be in the middle of the pack. So it’s on us to get on the film and review what went wrong.”
Heat guard Tyler Herro led all scorers with 26 points, with Adebayo adding 22 points, Strus 19 and Jimmy Butler 17.
For the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic recorded his eighth triple-double of the season, closing with 19 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists.
Five Degrees of Heat from Friday’s game:
1. Closing time: The Heat trailed 23-19 at the end of the first quarter, after shooting 6 of 29 in the opening period, the Heat’s lowest shooting percentage in any period this season.
The Nuggets then led 60-57 at halftime, despite shooting .632 in the first half to the Heat’s .388.
From there, with Adebayo and Herro combined for the Heat’s first 23 points of the third quarter, the Heat took a 90-85 lead into the fourth.
The Heat would go up eight early in the fourth, with the Nuggets regaining the lead midway through the final period by continually drawing Kyle Lowry into defensive mismatches.
Then, with the Heat down 115-114, Herro was fouled on a 3-point attempt, with video review upgrading the call against Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a flagrant foul.
Herro converted all three free throws for a 117-115 Heat lead, with the Heat unable to score when retaining possession.
A Murray 3-pointer followed for a 118-117 Denver lead, the Nuggets’ 17 3-pointer, with a pair of free throws by Murray pushing the lead to 120-117. Murray then converted a jumper to make it 122-117 with 1 minute to play, effectively ending it.
“They were able to get whatever they wanted, whether it was Jokic doing what he does or spray threes, guys getting downhill,” Herro said. “They’re a good offense. They’re a tough team to guard. So if you don’t make them uncomfortable and take away some of their strengths, then they can start hitting you from everywhere.”
2. The back story: With Friday night’s game opening a back-to-back set at altitude, the Heat took a measured approach with player availability.
Victor Oladipo was given Friday off, knee issues still preventing him from playing back-to-back sets.
Butler, by contrast, is expected to be off Saturday, with the hope that this will be the last time chronic knee soreness will keep him from playing back-to-backs.
The Heat’s next back-to-back set is Feb. 9-10, at home against the Houston Rockets and then at the Orlando Magic.
In addition to Oladipo being rested Friday, the Heat were without Caleb Martin, due to a quadriceps strain; Dewayne Dedmon, due to NBA health-and-safety protocols; and Omer Yurtseven, who is recovering from November ankle surgery.
Beyond Butler, it is possible that 36-year-old Lowry also gets Saturday off.
“Obviously a quick turnaround,” guard Duncan Robinson said. “So we got to show some toughness, mental toughness, to bounce back.”
3. A new line: With Martin out, it meant the Heat still have been able to open with their preferred starting lineup only 12 times this season, the quintet of Adebayo, Butler, Martin, Lowry and Herro.
Friday, in fact, marked the ninth consecutive game the Heat opened with a different lineup.
The last time the Heat featured the same starting five in consecutive games was Dec. 8 against the Los Angeles Clippers and Dec. 10 against the San Antonio Spurs.
Haywood Highsmith started in place of Martin, his third start of the season. Highsmith is one of 12 Heat players who have started at least one game.
4. Record night: Robinson converted his first two 3-point attempts in the second period to tie Tim Hardaway’s Heat career 3-point record.
Robinson was 2 of 2 on 3-pointers at a stage when the remainder of his teammates were 4 of 12.
Then, with 11:32 to play, Robinson stroked his third 3-pointer to put himself atop the Heat all-time list.
“You want to do it in a win, for sure,” Robinson said. “So that’s disappointing. But I just feel very fortunate and blessed to get it. A lot of people contributed to it, certainly not just myself. So I’m grateful for that. I’ll definitely take a second to just appreciate it.”
5. Bench boost: On a night the Heat bench was limited due to the absences of Oladipo and Dedmon, Strus and two-way player Orlando Robinson both helped the Heat buy needed time.
Robinson closed with 13 points, going 4 of 5 from the field and 5 of 6 from the foul line, with five rebounds in his 18 minutes.
Strus finished 7 of 13 from the field, 4 of 5 on 3-pointers.
“We’ve been in a bunch of close games and each game has a new challenge,” Strus said. “So we’ll keep learning from it and hopefully bounce back from it.”