The Denver Nuggets didn't end December with a winning record, but it was an accomplishment they had a chance for that heading into the last game of the month.
That chance was a home game against the Philadelphia 76ers -- minus Joel Embiid -- and Denver came up flat down the stretch. The Nuggets finished 6-7 for December, with two home losses in the final two weeks in games in which they led by double digits in the second half.
There was some good that came out of that loss. Denver coach Michael Malone discovered the load he was putting on his shortened rotation had an effect. Players were exhausted in the fourth quarter against the Sixers, and Malone vowed to correct that.
"I own the fact that I have played 7-1/2 guys, and let's be honest, it's been pretty good to us," Malone told The Denver Post after Tuesday's practice. "But after that Philly game, when you see how tired our guys are, I can't continue to do that. I have to find a couple guys that I can use to spell our starters and our key players, so they're just not dead."
Malone gets to put that new theory into practice when the Phoenix Suns are in town Wednesday night. The Suns are coming off a thrilling 104-103 comeback win against the lowly Atlanta Hawks.
Phoenix (15-24) is looking to the future while Denver has eyes on the postseason, but both teams have something in common -- bright young players who have All-Star Game aspirations. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is no longer a secret, earning praise from teams around the league for his court vision and playmaking ability. Malone has been campaigning hard for Jokic to be included on the Western Conference roster.
The Suns, on the other hand, have Devin Booker leading them, and he would cherish a chance to play in the All-Star Game. He acknowledges being on a winning team helps.
"I know wins matter in determining that," Booker told The Arizona Republic. "That's been a goal of mine since I was a kid, to be an All-Star in this league. It means a lot. I never thought I'd be in this position this early."
Booker helped his cause with a heroic performance against the Hawks. He had 34 points -- the third time in the last four games he has scored at least 32 -- and hit three free throws with 12.3 seconds left to complete the Suns' fourth-quarter rally for the win.
Booker is averaging 25.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. The 21-year-old guard has a 70-point game on his resume (last season, when he was 20) and his season high this year is 46.
In four games since missing nine with a left adductor strain Booker is averaging 31 points.
His supporting cast isn't as strong as Jokic's, which is why Denver (19-17) has a chance for the postseason. January will be a big push for the Nuggets. After having only five home games in December, they will play 10 of 15 at Pepsi Center, where they are 12-4.
Winning most of those home games is vital for a push to reach the postseason for the first time since 2012-13. Surviving December, with eight road games, was key to finishing the first part of the season with a winning record.
"We had a great start to the year, our best since 2011," guard Jamal Murray said after the loss to Philadelphia on Saturday. "December, and a few great months."