LOS ANGELES -- The Golden State Warriors wouldn't have had to work this hard down the stretch to make the playoffs if they didn't struggle while Stephen Jackson was suspended for the first seven games of the season.
The Warriors opened 0-6, but they are 41-19 since Jackson's return, including Wednesday night's 116-100 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers -- the same team they beat for their first victory of the season.
"I wouldn't have dreamed that we could have the record that we have after the start we had," coach Don Nelson said. "You've got to think in terms of, 'Wow, we're going to really struggle at times this year.' But we turned it around immediately as soon as we got him back."
Jackson was suspended by the NBA following his guilty plea to a felony charge of criminal recklessness for firing a gun into the air outside an Indianapolis club. He's more than made up for lost time, and is the team's second-leading scorer with a 20.7 average.
Jackson led the Warriors with 29 points against the Clippers, and Monta Ellis added 12 of his 28 during a 4:36 span of the fourth quarter. Golden State's ninth victory in 12 games, coupled with Denver's two-point loss at Philadelphia, increased the Warriors' lead over Denver to 2½ games in the race for the eighth and final Western Conference berth.
The first nine teams in the conference are separated by 6½ games. The Warriors have at least one game left against all of their playoff-contending adversaries in the West, except Utah, and they play Denver twice.
"We've been waiting for the tough part to come, and here it comes," Nelson said. "We have to play a lot better than we've been playing, or course, and we're going to play all good teams now. They're going to be fundamentally sound in all areas, and there's no way to get by a bad performance when you play these good teams."
Point guard Baron Davis knows the Warriors are up against it.
"This stretch is going to dictate our season, and it's going to be very difficult," Davis said. "We've got to hit our mark and really take care of business and prove that we belong."
Rookie Al Thornton had 24 points and 13 rebounds for the Clippers, who have lost five in a row and 13 of 15. Corey Maggette added 21 points and Tim Thomas scored 20 off the bench. The Warriors are the only team the Clippers have had three 20-point scorers against in every meeting this season, but Golden State still leads the series 2-1.
"It's definitely good to come out here and take care of business tonight because we have a tough schedule coming. It's going to make or break our season, and we don't want to let the season go to waste by not making the playoffs. I just don't want to have it come down to the last game of the season."
The Clippers know exactly what Jackson means. They were eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of last season. And despite their 21-46 record, they could have a say on how things turn put this year. They have at least one game left against eight of the nine teams still in contention, with Phoenix the only exception. They have two more left with Houston and two more with Dallas.
Mickael Pietrus had 12 rebounds and 15 points for the Warriors, who never trailed while snapping a seven-game road losing streak against the Clippers dating back to a 96-85 victory on March 21, 2004. They had dropped a combined 15 consecutive games at Staples Center against the Clippers and the Lakers.
"They've got a good floor general in Baron, and they've got other guys who can get it done as well," Thomas said. "We found a way to cut it to 11 in the fourth quarter, but good teams find a way to push back. And that's what they did."
The Clippers got as close as 92-81 on a free throw by Thornton that capped an 11-0 run with 9:36 to play, but Golden State responded with a 20-8 spurt that increased the margin to 112-89 with 3:42 remaining.
Smush Parker, who signed with the Clippers on March 12 after Miami released him, played his first game at Staples Center since leaving the Lakers at the end of last season and had eight assists and four points in 29 minutes.
Parker is the seventh player coach Mike Dunleavy has used at the point guard spot because of Shaun Livingston's season-long rehab from knee surgery. ... The Clippers are 17-46 since their season-opening four-game winning streak, which included a 120-114 victory against Golden State in their season opener. ... Los Angeles was 1-for-14 from 3-point range.