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Heat trip ends as last season did, with competitive loss in Denver, this time 103-97

DENVER — Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made one thing clear earlier in the day when it came to Thursday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena.

“It’s not Game 6 from last year,” he said of last season’s NBA Finals.

It only felt that way, at least when it came to the result, if not the fight.

Taken down by Denver in five games in last season’s championship series, the Heat again struggled to keep up in aptitude at altitude, falling 103-97 to close out a 3-1 trip.

With the loss, the Heat fell from the No. 5 to No. 8 playoff seed in the ever-shifting Eastern Conference playoff race.

“We’re just not quite there yet,” forward Jimmy Butler said.

Despite losing guard Jamal Murray for the night in the second quarter with an ankle sprain, the Nuggets still had enough behind the 30 points of forward Michael Porter Jr. Seeking a fifth consecutive triple-double for the first time in his career, Denver center Nikola Jokic closed with 18 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.

The loss came despite fighting back within two from a 13-point deficit with 5:19 to play.

“Our guys have that fortitude and grit to keep on fighting back,” Spoelstra said.

Playing in the injury absences of Tyler Herro and Kevin Love, the Heat got 22 points from Bam Adebayo, 21 from Butler, 19 from Terry Rozier, 13 from Caleb Martin and 12 from Duncan Robinson

“We always give ourselves a chance,” Adebayo said, “just being resilient.’

It now is back for a pair of home games for Spoelstra’s team, Saturday against the Utah Jazz and Tuesday against the Detroit Pistons, before another challenging Western Conference trip, a back-to-back set next week against the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Five Degrees of Heat from Thursday night’s game:

1. Closing time: The Nuggets led 36-20 at the close of the opening period, when Murray beat the buzzer with a banked-in 3-point heave. From there, the Heat worked back within 56-51 at halftime, with Murray leaving in the second period with an ankle sprain.

The Heat closed within two in the third but then went into the fourth down 83-70.

Denver then pushed its lead to 16 early in the fourth, with a Rozier basket with 1:51 to play drawing the Heat within 97-91. A Nuggets turnover followed as did another Rozier jumper to make it 97-93.

The Heat continued the push from there, with a Butler layup moving the Heat within 99-97 with 10.7 seconds to play.

But with a pair of free throws with 6.8 seconds left, Jokic effectively ended it.

“We’ll learn from this overall,” Spoelstra said. “It’s a good road trip, even though I’m not feeling that right now.”

2. Jovic/Jokic: The starting lineups offered instant Nikola Jokic vs. Nikola Jovic, with Jovic again starting for the Heat, along with Adebayo, Butler, Rozier and Robinson. That left the Heat lineup count for the season at 31.

Jovic opened defensively against Aaron Gordon, with Jokic opening defensively against Adebayo.

Jovic was active early, with five of the Heat’s first nine points, including a 3-pointer. Jokic was forced out with his second foul with 1:25 left in the opening period.

Jovic played 24:35, closing with seven points and six rebounds.

“We didn’t talk a lot,” Jovic said of interaction with his fellow Serb. “But me and Bam, I think for sure we can help this team.”

With Love sidelined with a bruised right heel, Orlando Robinson played as the Heat’s first big man off the bench, entering in the first period, his first action in five games.

3. Scary Terry: Again needed for more with Herro out, Rozier played with an aggressive bent even when the shot wasn’t falling.

Among his moments was a third-quarter steal in the Nuggets’ backcourt that he then dibbled into the corner to convert a 3-pointer. That shot brought the Heat within two and led to an immediate Denver timeout.

He then returned with that offensive bent in the fourth quarter, forcing the Nuggets to play to the buzzer.

“He was a big part of us being in this game,” Butler said.

Said Rozier, “That’s just part of our DNA, never giving up.”

4. Butler battles: Butler also played in attack mode, but Denver’s size proved limiting, whether it was the defensive physicality of Gordon or the length of Jokic and Porter.

Along the way, he extended a pair of personal streaks, his career-best streak to 13 games in a row with at least one 3-pointer and his season-best streak 12 consecutive games with at least one steal.

Of falling to No. 8 in the East, Butler said, “We’re OK. We’re all right.”

5. Bryant honored: Allowed NBA clearance to briefly be in the arena despite serving the third game of his suspension for last week’s scuffle against the New Orleans Pelicans, Heat backup center Thomas Bryant was presented his 2023 Nuggets championship ring by Denver forward Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

“Thomas,” the public-address announcer said, “you will forever be an NBA champion.”

Bryant, in street clothes, then was escorted from the arena by Heat security, eligible to return for Saturday’s home game against the Utah Jazz.

Bryant did not address the crowd.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone said it was only right the NBA allowed Bryant to be in the building during the Heat’s lone visit of the season.

“That’s where I think smarter heads prevailed in allowing Thomas to get the attention, recognition and the ring in front of the crowd,” Malone said.

The Nuggets have done the same for others who left in the offseason, such as Ish Smith, Bruce Brown and Jeff Green.

“It’s just a way of thanking him for all his contributions,” Malone said.