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Schedule catches up to Heat in Denver

DENVER -- One wonders how Sun Tzu would’ve handled a Los Angeles-Denver back-to-back.

Perhaps that's what LeBron James was studying as he spent the Heat’s miserable 130-102 loss to the Nuggets Thursday night in the visitor’s locker room at the Pepsi Center. James, who missed his first game of the season with a sprained ankle, might have turned off the game at some point and turned his full attention to Tzu’s “Art of War,” which he brought to read on the 10-day road trip.

The default explanation for the abomination was a classic NBA routine that may not be totally understandable, but exists just the same.

The Heat ran into what is known as a “schedule loss.” This has happened for years in Denver, where the cadence of the NBA schedule regularly allows them to host teams coming from the West Coast on the second night of back-to-backs.

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Dwyane Wade spent the fourth quarter on the bench in the blowout loss.

It was one of the reasons Doug Moe wanted his Nuggets teams to outrun opponents in the 1980s and, later, Paul Westhead tried his continuous fast-break style in Denver. The idea is to use the altitude as an advantage by running the visitors to exhaustion. Add in the fact that numerous teams arrive in downtown Denver later than 4 a.m. for games, as the Heat did after flying in from Los Angeles, and the Nuggets have long been on the winning side of the schedule.

With James out for the first time this season, the Heat seemed ready to accept defeat before the game even started, as they lost their ninth straight game in December.

“We did not have a lot of pop to our step or our spirit,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’re not going to make any excuses. We felt like we had enough coming into the game. Everybody deals with it, that’s the NBA. We’ve been pretty good in back-to-backs, we didn’t show it.”

The Heat had been 7-2 on the second night of back-to-backs and 5-2 when that game was on the road, proof that it shouldn’t be as big of a burden. But after winning 13 consecutive road games, many of them by summoning energy when the home team was rolling, the Heat didn’t have anywhere near the same fight.

Blame it on that schedule and the defense, which has now given up 241 points over the last two games. It got to the point where Spoelstra resorted to playing long stretches of zone when nothing else was working. The Nuggets abused that scheme, nailing 15 of 31 3-pointers.

If the Heat players were disturbed at all by the last two nights it didn’t show. Mostly they just wanted to get out of town and get to the next stop in Chicago, where an off day promises some rest -- and perhaps some reevaluation because the Heat have suddenly sprung leaks everywhere.

They may get a pass on this one -- the Nuggets were red hot, shooting 53 percent with great teamwork -- but they will not Saturday in Chicago. That is a key game against a potential playoff opponent. Playing short-handed is not an excuse, because the Bulls will be missing Joakim Noah.

“Nothing to be alarmed about, it is part of the NBA season,” said Dwyane Wade, who scored 16 points and sat out the fourth quarter with the game decided.

“It was a tough back-to-back for us. Some nights you’re going to struggle and you’re not going to have it. As a veteran team and a team that wants to be good you have to make the adjustments.”