James returns to lead Heat past Nuggets 97-94DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 30: LeBron James 36 of the Miami Heat looks to pass the ball against the Denver Nuggets on December 30, 2013 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
DENVER (AP) -- LeBron James returned from a groin injury on his birthday and wasted no time finding his shooting touch.
James scored 26 points and the Miami Heat beat the skidding Denver Nuggets 97-94 Monday night despite losing Dwyane Wade and Norris Cole during the game.
''They left me open at the 3-point line. I took nine 3s and all of them felt good,'' said James, who converted five. ''The groin wasn't an issue at all.''
James, who turned 29 on Monday, injured his groin Friday during the Heat's overtime loss at Sacramento. He sat out the following game, a 108-107 win Saturday in Portland, before coming back to help send the Nuggets to their seventh consecutive loss.
He certainly didn't mind going back to work on his birthday.
''No, it's not special,'' he said. ''It's special to go out there with my teammates, to be back in good form and be out there and help them win a ballgame on the road.''
Chris Bosh had 17 points and Ray Allen 13, including six in the final 5:08, as Miami won for the ninth time in 11 games.
Ty Lawson scored 26 points to lead the Nuggets, who dropped their second straight to Miami at the Pepsi Center after winning the previous 10. The losing streak is their longest since dropping the final eight games of the 2002-03 season.
''Those guys just made plays at the end and we missed a couple of shots, and that was all she wrote,'' Nuggets forward Darrell Arthur said. ''But I think we're starting to get it. We're trying to turn this thing around. Obviously, we're on a seven-game losing streak but hopefully we can turn this thing around and get back over .500.''
While the Heat got James back, they were without Wade and Cole for much of the game.
Cole left midway through the third quarter after taking a fall at the end of a driving layup attempt and hitting his face on the floor.
He had come into the game in place of Wade, who didn't return after halftime because of back spasms.
Cole went up for a shot against Lawson, who was called for a foul, and fell awkwardly face first to the floor. Cole remained down for several minutes while being tended to by trainers before being helped to his feet and assisted off the floor to the locker room for treatment.
''He went back and after a few minutes he was fine,'' Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. ''He is just going to have a fat lip tomorrow.''
Joel Anthony came in for Cole and made both free throws.
Trailing by nine at the break, the Heat opened the third quarter with a 13-0 run, regaining the lead on a 3-pointer by James. Denver fought back to take a 77-72 lead into the fourth quarter, getting successive baskets from Randy Foye and a dunk from Timofey Mozgov to help offset another 3 by James.
The teams alternated scores for most of the fourth quarter, with neither letting the other pull away. After Lawson hit a 3 to put Denver up 90-89, James and Allen converted jumpers on consecutive possessions for a 93-90 Miami lead with 1:36 remaining.
Wilson Chandler's two-handed dunk got Denver within a point with 50.7 seconds left but Miami answered with a 3-pointer by Michael Beasley off a feed from James, who finished with 10 assists.
''That was a huge shot,'' James said. ''It was great for his confidence. For me, I didn't even second-guess it. I trust my teammates.''
Foye's layup with 25.1 seconds remaining pulled the Nuggets to 96-94. Allen was fouled with 15.4 seconds left and made one of two free throws. Lawson's off-balance 3-point try hit off the rim and the rebound went out of bounds off Miami, giving Denver one last chance with 1.8 seconds left. With Udonis Haslem in his face, though, J.J. Hickson didn't get the inbounds pass off within 5 seconds, turning the ball back over to Miami, which ran out the final moments.
Arthur hit a 3-pointer with 4 seconds left in the second quarter, giving the Nuggets a 55-46 lead at halftime.
Miami, which led by as many as eight points early, had a 6-0 burst capped by Beasley's running bank shot to get to 46-43 with 2:19 left in the second. The Nuggets closed out the period by scoring nine of the next 12 points, starting with successive dunks from Kenneth Faried and Chandler.
NOTES: The Heat's Chris Andersen, a former Nugget, missed his third consecutive game because of a sore back. ... James has scored in double figures in 525 consecutive games, the fifth-longest streak in NBA history. ... Chandler has scored 10 or more points in 11 straight games and 19 of his last 21. ... The Heat improved to 9-1 against Western Conference opponents.