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Nuggets 98 - HEAT 103 Recap

MIAMI – There are two general perspectives for the Miami HEAT’s 103-98 victory over the Denver Nuggets.

The first is that, on the second night of a back-to-back, the manner in which the HEAT obtained a prospective win was less important than earning the win itself. There’s no back-to-backs in the playoffs, after all, and this was never going to be a game that would be picked apart to determine postseason success.

The second is that the HEAT did not play well enough against the Nuggets to consistently win in the playoffs. That even though Miami just finished a stretch of playing 11 consecutive playoff opponents, it’s no different than in the actual playoffs, where every opponent is of a high caliber.

Coach Erik Spoelstra opted for the former.

“Tonight’s game was encouraging,” Spoelstra said. “This was just a grind. We had to find a way. Our normal attacks and game we couldn’t really get into. But we found a way.”

That may be the takeaway. With the focus firmly on tightening things up for the playoffs, the HEAT found a way to win when they weren’t at their best – just 15 assists on 36 field goals – and amid circumstances which will not be repeated in a seven-game series.

They just did it in a way that was very reminiscent of December, when the HEAT were winning as no more than a sum of their own parts.

LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade combined for 83 of the 103 points – on 54 shots – but even though Bosh worked the low post and James attacked when catching the ball on the move, the spacing was never quite consistent, the earned looks never as consistently open as they would need to be against an elite defense.

Wade, in particular, carried the HEAT with one spectacular jumper after another. And the Nuggets all bit, one after another, on his pump fakes, as he got to the line for 13 freebies. Fan-pleasing plays, to be sure, but sustainable against a team that stays home, against a team that is much better at disguising double teams?

Those are the standards the HEAT are held to now, with weeks, not months, until the playoffs begin and must-win games become reality rather than narrative function.

And they’re OK with that. Games like this, just like blowout wins over the San Antonio Spurs and close losses to the Chicago Bulls, are part of the journey, each with something new to teach.

“It's not just these games, the five out of six that we've won,” Spoelstra said. “We've been . . . trying to improve our half-court execution for the last 4-6 weeks and it hasn't been a steady consistent climb of improvement, there have been some stumbles here and there. But we’ve been learning from our mistakes.

“Tonight was not our best execution but we had enough, and there was certainly some better down-the-stretch examples of half-court execution than we had a month or two ago. And again, it’s about finding different ways to win.”

Many of those examples came from Mike Bibby, who accounted for all but six of the non-All-Star points with 14. Bibby actively sought the open spaces on the floor, and players were jumbled, he set a screen to free someone. His efforts earned him eight good looks at three pointers, four of which he made, and helped hold off Denver’s hot bench shooting, with Danilo Gallinari and J.R. Smith combining for 50.

Bibby will have to keep it up, too, with Mario Chalmers going down with a right knee sprain (MRI on Sunday) early in the game. Questions about Bibby's fit in the starting lineup, or James and Wade’s willingness to shoulder even more of the ballhandling load, can be somewhat overblown, but there’s no question that Bibby’s ability to space the floor will be crucial in the HEAT building their offensive rhythm in the coming weeks.

“He’s a very good shooter,” Wade said. “He’s a veteran guy who is very smart. We’re comfortable for now with Mike taking the starting job. He’s going to fit right in.”

You can look at this game as the HEAT’s pieces not fitting well enough together for sustained postseason success, but circumstances will change. What’s important is Miami continues to find ways to win, which is why they have the highest average scoring margin in the league, at +7.14. And there’s no need to put that into perspective.