The Miami Heat have fought much of the season to reach .500, and now that they have attained a winning record, they are taking it on the road for their longest trip of the season — five games through the Western Conference.
The first stop is Denver to face the Nuggets, who are tied with New Orleans atop the Western Conference. Denver had a five-game winning streak snapped Wednesday night in a 127-126 loss at Sacramento, the second of back-to-back games in Sacramento.
The Nuggets played Wednesday without Jamal Murray (knee management), Aaron Gordon (right shoulder strain) and Bruce Brown (right ankle sprain). Murray will likely play against the Heat while the status of Gordon and Brown is uncertain.
Brown sprained his ankle in Tuesday’s win at Sacramento and Gordon suffered his injury in his seven-dunk performance against Phoenix on Christmas. Denver is also without Jeff Green for a month since he sustained a fractured right hand against Portland last week.
Green’s absence opened an opportunity for Zeke Nnaji. The third-year forward scored 14 points in 31 minutes in Wednesday’s loss after totaling just 10 points in his previous nine games. Wednesday was the most minutes he has played this season.
His importance is more on the defensive end than scoring.
As coach Michael Malone put it, “I just want to feel Zeke’s energy out there.”
Miami has its own young player in Caleb Martin, who is starting to make his mark this season. Now in his fourth year out of Nevada, Martin began his career with Charlotte and has been with the Heat the past two seasons.
He is averaging a career-best 10.7 points and has played good defense despite playing out of position much of the time as a 6-foot-5, 205-pound power forward.
“His versatility is vital to our group,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Night after night after night, he’s taking on all the different challenges this league can present. Whether he’s guarding the small, super-quick guys or whether he’s guarding the bigger wings or switching onto centers …
“Our defense seems to be more active and fast when he’s out on the court. He’s a playmaker out there, which fits with Jimmy (Butler) and Bam (Adebayo).”
Martin’s ability to contribute in different ways has helped when the Heat are dealing with absences. He scored 13 points against the Lakers with Kyle Lowry out for personal reasons and center Dewayne Dedmon nursing a foot injury.
Lowry could play Friday but Dedmon did not make the trip and will miss all five games.
Dedmon’s absence will make the job of stopping Nikola Jokic that much harder. Jokic, the two-time league MVP, is averaging 30 points, 12.3 rebounds and 10 assists a game in his 13 December games.
Jokic has scored 40 or more points in four of his past eight games.
The Heat enter their extended trip with an 18-17 season record and a respectable 7-9 mark on the road after sweeping their recent four-game trip in the Midwest. Overall, they have won six of their past eight, including a 112-98 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night.
–Field Level Media