OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -Don Nelson has long been a master of mismatches, using unconventional lineups that hide his team's deficiencies and make it difficult for opposing teams to counter.
The Golden State Warriors coach has no problem using 6-foot-9 Al Harrington to guard Yao Ming despite a 9-inch height disadvantage, knowing there's no way Yao can chase the quicker Harrington out around the 3-point line.
Lacking a traditional post player is no problem for Nelson, who often sends Baron Davis down to the block to overpower opposing point guards not able to handle physical post play.
Nelson values versatility and has players who fit his philosophy.
``They can guard different positions and different positions can't guard them,'' Nelson said. ``That's what I look for in a player. Those are the matchups I try to find in the game.''
Ever since Stephen Jackson's return from a season-opening seven-game suspension, Nelson has been able to do just that. Golden State had won 10 of 12 games heading into Friday night's game against Miami, overcoming an 0-6 start.
The biggest reason for the turnaround has been the return of Captain Jack, whose arrival from Indiana last season helped turn the Warriors from a sorry franchise that had missed the playoffs for 12 straight seasons into a team that went on a magical playoff run.
Golden State is 9-2 since Jackson's return, with its only losses coming on back ends of back-to-backs against Boston and Orlando - two of the NBA's elite teams.
``I told you all that I wasn't worried early in the season,'' Davis said. ``We got back to .500 quicker than I expected. But at the same time, knowing that we have our whole team together, anything is possible with these guys in this locker room.''
With Davis and Jackson leading the way, the Warriors are showing that last season's playoff run that included a first-round upset of top-seeded Dallas was no fluke.
Monta Ellis and Kelenna Azubuike have more than adequately replaced Jason Richardson, who was traded to Charlotte in the offseason. Andris Biedrins keeps improving and Matt Barnes fills just about whatever role Nelson asks of him.
But the key has been Jackson, who often is asked to shut down the opposing team's top player and create offense of his own on the other end.
``I think from what I've seen with Stephen back in the lineup we can play up to the potential we had last year when we played real well,'' Nelson said. ``That's what I hope for. I think if we stay healthy we can achieve that goal.''
Jackson is averaging a career-high 21.6 points per game, giving Nelson another consistent offensive option to reduce the scoring load on Davis. But it's Jackson's work on defense that has been most important.
He shut down Ron Artest and Tracy McGrady on back-to-back nights last week, forcing them into a combined 12-for-38 from the floor.
He has matched up against both Shawn Marion and Steve Nash when the Warriors beat Phoenix, and Chris Bosh and T.J. Ford in a win at Toronto, showing the versatility that makes Nelson's small-ball lineups work when he often plays without a center.
``Defense is all just wanting to do it,'' Jackson said. ``You can't really teach that. You've got to have the heart to do it. You've got to be willing to put your body on the line. You've got to be willing to take some sacrifices on offense to use more energy on defense. I'm willing to do that. And if I have to do that for my team to be successful, I will.''
There were some snickers when Nelson named Jackson a captain this offseason, as skeptics pointed to a checkered past that included the suspension this year for pleading guilty to a felony charge of criminal recklessness after firing a gun into the air at an Indianapolis strip club and his role in the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills in November 2004.
But Jackson is a leader on this young team, both in the locker room and on the court. His presence improved the defensive effort of all of the players, as evidenced by the turnaround since his return.
Golden State allowed 109.3 points per game and 49.6 percent shooting without Jackson, compared to 101.2 points per game and 43.8 percent shooting since his return.
``We don't give a lot of help to Jack, and he's still able to guard guys and put them in difficult situations to score,'' Davis said. ``I put him right up there with the Ron Artests and the Bruce Bowens as far as threes able to defend.''
Golden State's recent run is reminiscent of the 9-1 stretch to finish last season that gave the Warriors their first playoff berth since 1994. Golden State then shocked Dallas in the first round, becoming the first No. 8 seed to win an opening round, best-of-seven series, before losing to Utah in the second round.
Despite all the optimism around the Warriors these days, Nelson cautioned about getting too excited. The overtime loss earlier this week to Orlando showed one of the team's major flaws.
After Davis fouled out late in regulation, the offense struggled to create good shots. Davis has missed time with injuries each of the past five seasons, averaging only 56 games a season during that stretch.
Nelson knows an extended absence for either Davis or Jackson could be devastating, but still has trouble limiting their minutes to keep them fresh.
``It's a long season and our team is very fragile,'' Nelson said. ``I'm really only playing eight guys. Any injury to any of our top guys would really set us back. I think you saw a glimpse of it in the overtime without Baron. We really need him. He's one of the few guys who can get his own shot and also make his own play.''
But when the Warriors have all their pieces in place, they've shown they can be a force in the NBA.

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