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Heat drops 4th straight with loss to Nuggets

By David Wilson
Miami Herald/TNS

The return to normalcy - or at least something closer to it - was tantalizingly close to the Miami Heat on Wednesday. Jimmy Butler shot around on the court at AmericanAirlines Arena a few hours before tipoff, walked off into the tunnel with Erik Spoelstra rubbing his shoulders after the practice session, then watched his teammates from the bench as the Denver Nuggets pummeled the Heat in Miami.

There was only so much he could do from the sideline. The Heat lost again 109-82 to drop a fourth straight game with the All-Star forward sidelined. The skid is Miami’s longest since the final week of the 2018-19 NBA season, when the Heat missed the 2019 NBA playoffs, then retooled by acquiring Butler in the offseason.

Butler, who hasn’t played since Jan. 9 because of the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, could finally return Thursday - he has cleared protocol, but the team held him out for conditioning purposes - and the Heat (6-11) has never needed him more.

It took Miami more than 10 minutes to finally crack double figures and the Heat started 0 of 13 from three-point range. Miami’s 12-point first quarter was its lowest scoring quarter of the season and its 15 missed three-pointers tied an NBA record for a single quarter in the regular season.

In the first half, the Heat shot 30.8 percent from the field and 19.2 percent from deep to go into halftime trailing 58-33. The 33 points half was Miami’s second worst of the season and put the Heat on pace for one of the 20 lowest scoring games in franchise history. Bam Adebayo went into the break with nine points and Robinson had six, and no one else had more than five. The Heat was outscored by 23 points when Adebayo was on the floor in the first half and not a single player had a positive plus-minus. None of the lineups Miami used had ever been used before.

Still, the Heat cut the Nuggets’ lead down to 80-73 early in the third quarter, but it never shrunk any smaller. All-Star post player Nikola Jokic scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, and Denver (11-7) overwhelmed Miami, which got 15 points from Adebayo, 17 from guard Kendrick Nunn and not much else.

Butler wasn’t all the Heat had missing to start this six-game homestand in South Florida. Tyler Herro missed his seventh straight game with neck spasms and fellow guard Goran Dragic sat out because of a left groin strain, leaving Miami without two more of its top four scorers. Meyers Leonard missed his ninth straight with a left shoulder strain and fellow forward Maurice Harkless missed his second straight with a right thigh contusion, costing the Heat precious depth. Wing Avery Bradley was the lone reinforcement Wednesday after he cleared health and safety protocols a few days ahead of Butler.

Miami’s COVID issues began shortly after the Jan. 9 game against the Washington Wizards. The narrow win in Washington kicked off a four-game road trip that quickly shrunk to three when the NBA postponed a game against the Boston Celtics because the Heat didn’t have the minimum eight players necessary to play. When it closed out the road trip with two straight games against the Philadelphia 76ers, Miami did so without Butler and Bradley, plus Adebayo, Dragic, Nunn and three others identified through contact tracing.

The Heat, which had alternated wins with losses to that point, dropped back-to-back in Philadelphia and now lost 7 of 9 to plummet to 13th place in the Eastern Conference, although Miami remains only a game out of eight place and playoff position.

It will almost certainly get better for the Heat in the coming weeks. For now, a frustrating start is one more game away from eating a full quarter of this shortened 72-game season.