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At 16-7, the Nuggets sit high atop the Western Conference standings, looking down at the Warriors, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Thunder and every other playoff team that qualified for the postseason ahead of them last year.

So how did Denver arrive here? Here are five numbers that explain why the Nuggets have clicked so far this season and why their hot start is no accident.

103.5

The Nuggets are only allowing 103.5 points per 100 possessions this season, good for the third-best defense in the league. A year ago, Denver gave up 109.9 points per 100 possessions and was the 23rd-ranked defense. The Nuggets have also seen their field goal percentage defense jump up from 30th overall in 2017-18 to 10th this year. But the most surprising defensive stat? The Nuggets are holding their opponent to 31 percent shooting from distance. It’s an astonishing turnaround for a team that returned 78 percent of its minutes from last season’s group that finished dead last in that category.

“That’s our identity,” Michael Malone said after a recent Nuggets win.

It’s not just Paul Millsap, who’s the best defender on the Nuggets’ roster and should be a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors at this juncture of the season. Everyone from Nikola Jokic to Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez has bought into the idea that Denver can only achieve its goals this season if they fully dedicate themselves on the defensive end of the floor.

Jokic didn’t move with this type of force on defense throughout his first three seasons in Denver, but this year he looks committed to rewriting the poor defensive narrative that’s followed him closely throughout his career.

Late in the fourth quarter against Portland, with Denver clinging to a one-point lead in need of a stop, the Nuggets’ defense came up big again. Denver navigated through rotation after rotation, closing out to one three-point shooter after another in a possession that spanned 26 seconds. Eventually, Hernangomez secured the biggest rebound of the night. Jokic was right in the middle of this defensive possession too.

When the Nuggets and Jokic met to go over their offseason goals after last year, they focused on three areas of improvement for the big man to work on: his mental toughness, leadership and quickness. The last factor was a priority so Denver could play a more aggressive style on defense that involved Jokic playing in space more often. He’s shown improvement in all three facets.

Jokic has been able to switch out onto smaller and quicker guards with more regularity this year. The aggressive defensive scheme has helped Denver hold the last three All-Star point guards they’ve faced — Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry — to a combined 36 points on just 13-46 (28.2 percent) from the field and 5-26 from three.

7.8

The pass was so on point, it caught Malik Beasley off guard. The bloodbath was already on Tuesday when Monte Morris, Beasley’s back court running mate, delivered a dart while falling out of bounds that surprised the player who only half a second earlier was calling for the ball with both hands raised in the air. Beasley hesitated before stroking…

Monte Morris always stays locked. Scroll through Morris’ Instagram or click through his latest posts on Snapchat and you’ll see the Iowa State product’s favorite emoji plastered all over his latest pictures and videos. Sometimes Morris tags the locked emoji onto the end of an IG caption. Sometimes it stands alone accompanying a video. Morris started using the emoji over…

Eight nuggets for the amount of times Anthony Davis got to the free throw line in the fourth quarter of a 125-115 loss. 1. Jrue Holliday cut through the Nuggets’ pick and roll coverage like an electric knife through a turkey. With eight minutes to go, Holliday breezed between Mason Plumlee and Jamal Murray, got to the rim and laid…...

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Twenty-four hours before Jamal Murray’s 48-point tour de force that led the Nuggets to a 115-107 win over the Celtics, Denver’s starting point guard was on the same hardwood where he’d post his career-high in points Monday evening, rehearsing the exact shots and movements he’d soon perform to perfection against Kyrie Irving. Murray’s dress rehearsal was a precursor to the…

Darrell Arthur knew Nikola Jokic was special from the first time he saw the big man run, or better yet, lumber down the court. It was August 2015, and Jameer Nelson had flown his teammates out to Philadelphia on his own dime for “Dig Deep Week,” an informal minicamp where Nuggets players could bond with one another before the season.…...

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Down by two and in need of a steal and a score with under 10 seconds remaining in a March 2016 matchup against the Dallas Mavericks, the Nuggets got a clutch defensive play from their head coach. With Chandler Parsons inbounding the ball near Denver’s bench, Michael Malone played the role of the Nuggets’ sixth defender, jumping up and down…...

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When Jonathan Morse found out earlier this year that the Perth Wildcats were traveling to Denver for a preseason matchup with his hometown Nuggets, he thought he’d be attending the game as a fan. Morse played last season for East Perth, a second-division team in Australia’s State Basketball League and had trained with Perth’s top club during the preseason. He…...

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SAN DIEGO — A year before LeBron James posted an Instagram picture of the bright neon sign “I Am More Than An Athlete”, imploring his counterparts around the globe to not shut up and dribble but strive to make an impact in their communities, Xavier Silas was already hard at work living The King’s Gospel. Silas, currently signed to a…

The Detroit Pistons were such heavy underdogs against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 Finals that in order to place a bet on the Lakers that netted you $100, you had to wager $800. No one outside of Detroit’s close-knit locker room gave the Pistons a puncher’s chance against Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Phil Jackson and Hollywood’s latest version…...

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Arturas Karnisovas couldn’t make it through his first practice alongside Arvydas Sabonis without getting conked on the head by one of the big man’s bullets. In the summer of 1992, Karnisovas and Sabonis were back home in their native country of Lithuania gearing up for the Olympics in Barcelona. Karnisovas had just wrapped up his sophomore year at Seton Hall…

On Nov. 30, 2015, DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and the Illinois State Redbirds marched into Rupp Arena to face the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats and their highly-touted freshman guard Jamal Murray. Kentucky won 75-63 but Akoon-Purcell got the better of his future Nuggets’ teammate in the head-to-head matchup. He remembers it well. “I kind of went off that game. I think I had 22…

It’s been just over two years since Isaiah Thomas warned general managers and owners around the league that they “better bring out the Brinks truck” if they wanted to secure his services once he hit the free agent market. It was a bold proclamation at the time from the ever-confident Thomas, but one that came with merit. Thomas was coming…

LAS VEGAS — Monte Morris stamped out any faint hope the Milwaukee Bucks were clinging to. In the final game of group play Monday at NBA Summer League, the Bucks were in possession down five with 20 seconds to go. D.J. Wilson got jammed up along the three-point arc and tried to find teammate Jordan Barnett, but Morris read the…...

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LAS VEGAS — The Nuggets were fully aware of the risks involved when they selected Michael Porter Jr. 14th overall in last month’s draft. His surgery in November — a L3-L4 microdiscectomy on his lower back — and medical red flags damaged the former projected top pick’s draft stock enough for 12 teams to pass on him. Because of the…...

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One came from Serbia, the other from the rolling Black Hills of South Dakota. Together, they’re the ‘Black Serbs,’ and they’re out to bridge the gap between their two drastically different worlds. This is their unlikely story. Meet David Brkljac When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombed the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, David Brkljac and his…...

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He has faced intense scrutiny from fans about his schemes and rotations over his three-year run at the Nuggets’ helm. He has dealt with backlash from pundits regarding his failure to coach a league-average defense throughout his time in Denver. Those narratives may have clouded how some view Michael Malone the coach, but the outside noise is nonexistent inside the walls…

The Nuggets were battered and bruised following their 114-110 loss in Toronto on March 27 — the sixth game of a season-long seven-game road trip. Denver’s narrow four-point loss to the Raptors was the Nuggets’ fourth defeat in 10 days, and after losses in Memphis, Miami and Philadelphia, Michael Malone was worried his players might start to check out with…

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