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Golden State Warriors' surprising start sparked by emphasis on defense

Since Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin captivated the Bay Area in the "Run TMC" days of the early 1990s, the Golden State Warriors have been known for scoring a lot of points and giving up even more.

Not anymore.

In Mark Jackson's second season as coach, the Warriors finally have started to change their focus. Golden State (21-10) is off to its best start in more than 20 years entering Wednesday night's home game against the Los Angeles Clippers (25-7), a surprising turnaround that has been propelled largely by defense.

So much so that the matchup between the Warriors and Clippers — both long-time losers in the Pacific Division — suddenly pits two of the best teams in the Western Conference. The Clippers, who Golden State beat 114-110 in Los Angeles on Nov. 3, had won a franchise-record 17 straight games until losing 92-78 at Denver on Tuesday night.

"It's 2013," forward Carl Landry said with a smile after Tuesday afternoon's practice on New Year's Day. "It's a different time."

In the bold and boisterous tone of a former broadcaster and Brooklyn native, Jackson declared in downtown San Francisco on the day the Warriors hired him that defensive deficiency would no longer be tolerated. He said he was well aware of the fan fascination with the run-and-fun teams of Don Nelson and Keith Smart, though he promised his style would be different.

"Things gone be a changing," Jackson said on June 10, 2011.

The former New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers point guard never really had a chance to implement his system in his rookie year on the sidelines, not with a roster ravaged by injuries and the season shortened to 66 games because of the labor lockout. Over the summer, new Warriors general manager Bob Myers acquired veterans such as Landry and Jarrett Jack along with a trio of rookies — Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green — who have highlighted the kind of heart and hustle Jackson has long preached.

More than a third of the way through the season, the results are starting to show.

The Warriors rank third in the league in rebounding differential (plus-4.19) and fourth in average opponents' field-goal percentage (42.9 percent) per game. They were 28th and 20th, respectively, in those categories while finishing 23-43 last season.

"You can't just wake up and be an elite defensive team. But the more you preach it, the more you hear that message, it shows in how we practice in training camp, how we watch film and study the game," said point guard Stephen Curry, who has become a surprising pest on defense. "All that comes into the process of becoming a better team. We still have more ways we can improve. But we are a hundred times better defensively than we were last year, and that's why our record reflects that. We just have to stick to it."

Jackson believes players started to embrace his approach once they realized the previous ways didn't translate into wins.

Golden State is 19-2 when outrebounding an opponent, and 6-1 when holding teams below 40 percent shooting this season. Only two teams — Oklahoma City and Sacramento — have shot more than 50 percent against the Warriors, who lost both of those games.

Golden State finished December with a 12-4 record, including a 6-1 road trip highlighted by a win at the defending champion Miami Heat, and won at least 20 games before New Year's Day for the first time since 1980. The Warriors also tied the 1961-62 team — when the franchise was still in Philadelphia — with 12 wins in December.

They are 11-6 on the road, already equaling the amount of wins away from home during last season's shortened schedule. Only San Antonio, with 12 roads wins, has more this season.

Not bad for a franchise that has made the playoffs just once since 1994.

"They witnessed where relying on the offensive end got them," Jackson said. "That's with all due respect. There was some success, but it wasn't success that was able to be sustained. Preaching to them, defensively, if you get it done, people are going to have to deal with you. And not just this year, but for a long time to come."

Perhaps the most surprising part of the new Warriors' way is that they're doing it with two of the team's best defensive players out with injuries.

Andrew Bogut, expected to be the new franchise center, has played in only four games and is out indefinitely while he recovers from the lingering effects of surgery on his left ankle. Small forward Brandon Rush, who Jackson had called his best perimeter defender, was lost for the season after tearing two ligaments in his left knee the second game of the year.

"I'm extremely proud of this group," Jackson said. "I really believe that bigger things lie ahead than what we just accomplished."

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Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP

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