Denver Nuggets at Miami Heat game preview

TV: FOX Sports Sun

TIME: Pregame coverage begins at 5:30 p.m.


MIAMI – The Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets, both facing difficult battles to qualify for the playoffs, meet on Sunday night in Miami in a game with a lot on the line.

The Heat are one of three teams in the Eastern Conference with identical 37-39 records, and only two of them — the way it looks now — can make the postseason.

Miami Heat on FOX Sports Sun

Due to tiebreakers, the Chicago Bulls are in seventh place, the Heat are eighth and the slumping Indiana Pacers are ninth.

Over the past 10 games, the Bulls are 6-4, the Heat are 5-5, and the Pacers are 3-7.

In the Western Conference, it looks like a two-team fight for the final playoff spot. And after Portland’s 130-117 win over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night, the Trail Blazers lead the Nuggets (35-40) by 2 1/2 games.

“Denver had been sitting on that eighth spot for a long time, and now they are in this crazy, competitive battle with Portland,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You can expect a desperate game on (Denver’s) part.”

The Heat have won three straight games in their series against Denver. Heat center Hassan Whiteside had 25 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks when Miami beat the Nuggets in Denver on Nov. 30.

Whiteside is averaging 18.9 points over his past 10 games. For the season, he is averaging 16.8 points and leads the NBA with 14.1 rebounds per game.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone will surely focus his game plan on Whiteside as well as Heat leading scorer Goran Dragic, an aggressive point guard who is averaging 23.3 points over his past three games.

Yet Malone knows that the biggest issue is with his own team, which is on a three-game losing streak that is the Nuggets’ longest skid since January 7.

“I just want to find guys who can compete and play hard,” Malone told The Denver Post on Saturday. “Missing shots is one thing. But if you are not competing, that’s not acceptable.”

The Nuggets have three players who are questionable for Sunday: point guard Jameer Nelson (calf); shooting guard Will Barton (foot) and forward Darrell Arthur (knee). Barton averages 13.7 points, Nelson averages 9.2 points and 5.1 assists, and Arthur averages 6.2 points.

Then again, the Knicks on Friday came into AmericanAirlines Arena with a 28-47 record and without the services of two of their top three scorers in Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose as well as Joakim Noah and Lance Thomas, who have started 61 games combined this season.

And yet, the Knicks took it to the Heat, emerging with a stunning 98-94 win.

“Those are the most dangerous teams because they have nothing to lose,” said Dragic, who missed a layup in the final eight seconds that would have tied the score. “They just play freely — no pressure — and if they miss a shot, they don’t care.”

Dragic acknowledged on Saturday that the Heat miss starting guard Dion Waiters, who is still out with an ankle injury. Waiters has missed seven consecutive games, and the Heat are 3-4 during that span.

“When Dion is on the floor, maybe I get two or three more open spot-up shots,” Dragic said. “Now I’m more handling the ball, and those (same) shots are not available. I can still create shots for others and myself. I had that layup (attempt).

“But when you don’t start the game with a lot of energy, you are playing with karma.”

After the bitter loss to the Knicks, Tyler Johnson, James Johnson and Rodney McGruder went upstairs to the Heat’s practice gym to work on their games.

“I missed a couple of free throws down the stretch, and I didn’t want to take that home with me,” Tyler Johnson said of his postgame workout. “I wanted to release some stress. It’s not fair to take that back to your family.”