(AP) — The NBA season is less than one-third over. But the New Orleans Pelicans’ unexpected ascension to the top of the Western Conference is noteworthy nonetheless.
The Pelicans, who started 3-16 last season, moved into the No. 1 position in the conference when they won for the ninth time in 11 games — beating the visiting Detroit Pistons 104-98 –and the Phoenix Suns were routed by the Boston Celtics 125-98 on Wednesday.
That gave New Orleans a half-game lead over the Suns, who will visit the Pelicans on Friday.
“I know it’s early,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said after practice Thursday, “but we’re definitely celebrating where we are, knowing we still have work to do.”
The Suns and Pelicans will meet again Sunday in a dynamic reminiscent of their Western Conference first-round playoff series last season. The eighth-seeded Pelicans gave the top-seeded Suns a battle before Phoenix won the best-of-seven series in six games.
“We’re all thankful to be in this position,” Green said. “We have a ton of great guys on the team that buy into what we want to accomplish. It’s a good place to be early in the season. We just want to continue to build from here.”
New Orleans, which is fifth in the NBA in scoring (116.7 points per game), defeated the Pistons by allowing its third-fewest points in a game this season.
“We were just doing whatever it takes, really,” said forward Naji Marshall, who scored 17 points off the bench. “We had some offensive lulls, so we had to win on the defensive end.”
New Orleans has won its last five games even though second-leading scorer Brandon Ingram has been sidelined by a toe contusion that will keep him out of Friday’s game. Fellow starter Herbert Jones also will miss the game because of an ankle injury while sparkplug Jose Alvarado (rib) is questionable.
Phoenix, which is tied for second with Memphis, had maintained its spot atop the conference even while All-Star guard Chris Paul missed 14 games because of a sore heel. He returned Wednesday night, but the Suns were manhandled by the NBA-leading Celtics.
“We didn’t compete the way we needed to compete,” Suns center Deandre Ayton said.
Boston led by as many as 45 points as Phoenix lost for the third time in four games.
“It feels like that game should count as two losses, but the good thing is it is still only one,” All-Star guard Devin Booker said.
The Suns missed all eight of their 3-point attempts as the Celtics took a 31-21 lead at the end of the first quarter. The deficit kept growing as Boston took a 69-42 halftime lead.
“You can’t blame scheme, you can’t blame rotation or anything on coach (Monty Williams),” Booker said. “We have to look at the mirror as a team and we have to fix it.”
Josh Okogie came off the bench to score a career-high 28 points and lead Phoenix. He made 8 of 14 field-goal attempts, including 4 of 6 on 3-pointers. His teammates were 4 of 26 on 3-pointers.
The Suns beat the visiting Pelicans 124-111 on Oct. 28.
–Field Level Media