DENVER (AP) — The topic: Denver leading the Western Conference and whether teams are starting to take the Nuggets more seriously.

The look from Nikola Jokic: Nearly expressionless. The Joker doesn’t jest about this subject.

“To be honest, I don’t really care,” Jokic said . “Because we know that we’re good.”

Denver is missing three starters and still boasts a percentage points lead over Golden State in the conference standings . This marks the latest into a season the Nuggets have been leading the conference since December 18, 1984.

The Nuggets have swagger, confidence and Jokic, the big Serbian center/forward/guard who’s blossoming into one of the league’s most hard-to-defend players.

“A lot of people just think we are on a hot run right now,” said forward Torrey Craig, whose team has won 10 of 12 heading into Tuesday’s game against Dallas. “They don’t really believe in us. But I think we have started to open a lot of eyes. We just have to realize how we win.”

Grind it out? They can do that. They’ve already held 13 teams to under 100 points this season. Score it out? The Nuggets can play that game, too. They’re averaging around 109 points this season.

These aren’t the Nuggets of the past.

“We can win 130-128 but I think our guys have bought in to the fact we are a defensive team,” coach Michael Malone said. “If we have to grind out wins, they may not be the most aesthetically pleasing games but all we care about is the end result. We’re getting the wins and getting it with tough defense and late-game execution.”

DENVER, CO – DECEMBER 10: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets inches his way to the basket against Nikola Jokic #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies at the Pepsi Center on December 10, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Malone had one of the best soundbites of the season after a home win over LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. There was a strong contingent of Lakers fans at Pepsi Center — just like when Golden State and Boston were in town.

“As long as their fans go home disappointed, that’s all I care about,” Malone said. “So the Warriors fans can come in here, the Celtics fans can come in here, the Lakers fans can come in here, but take that ‘L’ on the way out.”

The last part ended up on a T-shirt.

Just a sign of the feistiness of his team. Point guard Jamal Murray has also demonstrated that on several occasions.

Like when he had 48 points against the Celtics on Nov. 5. Trying to reach 50, he shot a long-range jumper at the buzzer with the game decided. Kyrie Irving took exception and heaved the basketball into the stands.

Over the weekend, Murray and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook got into a shoving match when the two were jostling for positioning on a jump ball late in a Nuggets win.

“He tried to move me out of the way,” said Murray, whose team has big wins over Boston, Golden State and Toronto (twice). “He shoved me first. It is what it is. I didn’t do anything.”

All in a night’s work for the Nuggets, who haven’t been to the postseason since 2012-13.

“We have shooters, we have scorers and we have playmakers,” Craig said. “But we can buckle down and make stops when we need to as well. To have that versatility and different ways to win is huge for us.”

Especially now, with the team missing Will Barton (right hip/core muscle surgery), Gary Harris (hip) and Paul Millsap (big toe). Point guard Isaiah Thomas (hip) also remains sidelined.

In their absence, Jokic’s stepped up his game, averaging 21.7 points, 11 rebounds and 8.6 assists this month. He’s looking like a good bet to make the All-Star Game. The Nuggets haven’t had a representative in that contest since Carmelo Anthony in ’10-11.

“We believe in him. He’s the future of this team,” Malone said. “Whether we have guys out or a full roster, we expect a lot from Nikola. With Gary, Will and Paul all out, you’ve seen Nikola step up and contribute to the win in many different ways.”

On Sunday, Jokic was backing down Toronto’s Serge Ibaka when he casually flipped a one-handed jumper over his shoulder.

Just the way things have been going of late for the Nuggets.

“We want to keep being good,” center Mason Plumlee said. “As long as we keep getting better month to month, we’ll be good.”

By PAT GRAHAM

(© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.) 

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