Miami Heat Emerge from Road Trip Satisfied, but Best of West Awaits

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterDecember 31, 2013

USA Today

DENVER -- Yes, it crossed Joel Anthony's mind.

Here he was, being a good teammate, helping to carry Norris Cole to the visiting locker room after the Miami Heat point guard crashed face-first on the Pepsi Center floor.

"I was like, man, it would be messed up if I had to like come back out here and go into the game," Anthony said. "But I'm like, I'm not going into the game, Spo has his lineup. And they're like, 'Doc, they're waiting on you to shoot free throws.' I was like, 'What? Damn."

The Nuggets coach, Brian Shaw had chosen the Heat reserve to shoot the free throws in Cole's place, even though Anthony isn't awful from the line, at 66.3 percent for his career.

"That's the thing, no one knows, and that's OK," Anthony said. "As long as they keep not knowing, I'm going to keep going out there, knocking them down, taking those free points."

Which is what he did, making both in Monday's third quarter, part of a 97-94 victory that was full of such odd occurrences. With Cole not allowed to return, and with Dwyane Wade limited to 18 minutes because his back tightened after a spill, Erik Spoelstra used 12 different players for something or other, to escape the altitude with a 3-1 road trip through the Western Conference.

Dec 30, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) takes a shot against Denver Nuggets shooting guard Wilson Chandler (21) in the third quarter at the Pepsi Center. The Heat defeated the Nuggets 97-94. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Dow
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Spor

LeBron James led the way, of course—recording 26 points, six rebounds and 10 assists on his 29th birthday—though he seemed largely content to facilitate or shoot from the perimeter after missing a game with a sore groin.

"I took whatever I wanted," James insisted. "They went under a lot of pick-and-rolls. They left me open at the three-point line."

And he made five of them.

But it wasn't just him.

There was also 8-of-12 shooting from Chris Bosh, who earlier had been named the East Player of the Week for the first time since he was a Raptor. There were nine points in the fourth quarter from Ray Allen, shaking off the knee tendinitis that had caused him to miss the morning shootaround. There was a clutch 3-pointer from Michael Beasley, who took a kickout pass from James and did what he's done his entire life: "If you're not in my face, I'm gonna shoot it. And in my mind, I'm gonna make it every time."

"Michael is a lot of things, but he is not afraid," Spoelstra said.

And there was a defensive stand at the end, with Udonis Haslem leaping frantically in the air as J.J. Hickson held it past the five-second limit. "It's the least I could do," said Haslem, who was 0-for-4 from the field, getting extended playing time with Chris Andersen sitting. "I couldn't do nothing right tonight. At least I was able to finish the game on a good note. I was just trying to jump as high as I could, and not cross the line."

And so, there would be a buoyant trip back across the country, after Miami beat the Lakers, Trail Blazers and Nuggets, even with James and Wade only together for the duration of the game in Los Angeles. Of course, there was also a loss, with a late lead squandered against the Kings.

"It was definitely a good way to finish," Spoelstra said. "3-1, you don't think about who the wins are against. I'm probably the only one who will be losing sleep about the Sacramento loss on the plane."

Seems so.

"Obviously we wanted to go 4-0 on the trip," James said. "But we played some really good basketball on the whole. We can definitely use this going into the New Year." 

His teammates also called the trip successful, and it's hard to argue, even if three of the games came against teams that are unlikely to qualify for the postseason, with Portland the obvious exception. There are tougher tests to come. Miami has still yet to play Oklahoma City or San Antonio or Houston or Golden State, with two contests (one home, one away) to come against each—the first against the Warriors this Thursday. The Heat still need to travel to face the Clippers and the Suns, and they still have a home date with the Trail Blazers.

Those teams have more teeth than the Nuggets, spiraling downward, at this stage.

Speaking of teeth, Cole escaped with his after his scary fall that put Anthony in the limelight.

"I definitely checked them," Cole said. "I put a lot of money into these things. Obviously, they were more concerned if I had fractured something in my face. The wood is very unforgiving."

So is the road.

But, during this last week of December, it didn't beat the Heat down.