MINNEAPOLIS — Nuggets coach Michael Malone along with president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and general manager Arturas Karnisovas sat three abreast more than six months ago at Media Day and stressed that defense was their team’s No. 1 priority heading into a season with lofty expectations.

“Defense, defense, defense,” Malone said when describing what the message was to his players at their inaugural team dinner.

Those expectations got a hard dose of reality just 16 games into the season when marquee free agent signing Paul Millsap went down with a left wrist injury that required surgery and sidelined the power forward for more than three months. As expectations gradually tempered without Millsap, so did Denver’s defense, which settled into the bottom-five standing that’s become familiar territory for the Nuggets.

Millsap has played 21 games since he returned from injury. Denver is 13-8 with him back in the rotation and just reeled off a six-game winning streak against teams that were a combined 64 games over .500 to save its season. The Nuggets are also winning games the way Malone and Millsap envisioned when the 33-year-old signed his name on the dotted line last summer.

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Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. The University of Colorado alum grew up in Boulder and has covered the Nuggets for the last three seasons. You can hear him every weekday on the DNVR Nuggets podcast. Follow Harrison on Twitter - @HarrisonWind