PHOENIX (AP) — Willie Green’s time as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns taught him that quick improvement can happen with the right mix of talent, desire and steady leadership.
Turns out that blueprint can travel.
Green, the first-year New Orleans Pelicans coach who was Phoenix’s top assistant last season, leads his upstart team against the top-seeded Suns in the first round of the NBA playoffs beginning with Game 1 on Sunday in Phoenix.
The Pelicans advanced to the playoffs by beating the Los Angeles Clippers 105-101 in the play-in tournament on Friday.
“I definitely believed we had a chance to do something special from the very beginning that I got here, and this team reminded me a lot of Phoenix,” Green said. “Young, hungry, but high-character guys.”
Phoenix comes into the playoffs after setting a franchise record with 64 wins in the regular season. The Suns are led by an All-Star backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker and have a rapidly improving supporting cast that includes Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson.
Suns coach Monty Williams said it’s not a surprise to see his protégé have quick success. The two coaches remain close friends, but Williams said it won’t be hard to face the Pelicans.
“He’s still going to be my friend,” Williams said. “But we’re trying to win the game. He’s thinking the same thing.”
The Pelicans started the season with a 1-12 record but steadily improved. They were bolstered by a mid-season trade that brought CJ McCollum to New Orleans, adding his scoring punch to a lineup that already included Brandon Ingram, Jaxson Hayes and Jonas Valanciunas.
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES
Phoenix is trying to make it back to the NBA Finals one year after making it to the final round before losing to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games.
The Suns looked good during the regular season, winning eight more games than any other team in the league. Booker led the team in scoring with nearly 27 points per game. Paul — at nearly 37 years old — led the NBA with 10.8 assists per game.
The veteran point guard said continuity has been key to their success so far.
“I think it’s helped us,” Paul said. “We saw it in the regular season. Now we’ve got to see what it looks like in the playoffs.”
The Suns did tweak their bench during the offseason, with GM James Jones bringing in sharpshooter Landry Shamet and big man JaVale McGee.
The 34-year-old McGee responded with one of his best seasons in years, averaging 9.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks.
PLAYOFFS FOR INGRAM
It’s the first trip to the playoffs for Ingram, who scored 30 points on 14-of-21 shooting in the Pelicans’ win over the Clippers in the play-in.
“Now he has the chance to play on the biggest stage, and he showed tonight how great he is,” McCollum said. “He can get to his spots, get to the rim, he can make plays.”
The 6-foot-8 Ingram has grown into a solid scorer and all-around player, averaging 22.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
Green also had high praise for Ingram.
“Brandon Ingram is the truth,” the coach said. “He just brought it. He had that look in his eye from the time we got on the plane, shootaround. He’s been locked in. He has been waiting for this moment, for this type of moment.”
Williams said Shamet is day-to-day with a sprained left foot. … Pelicans young star Zion Williamson is on the trip to Phoenix, but barring a sudden change in stance by Pelicans management, not expected to play in this series.
ODDS AND ENDS
FanDuel Sportsbook has the Suns as big favorites in the first round. Phoenix was 3-1 against New Orleans this season. … The Suns should have a sizable home-court advantage. They’ve hosted 26 sellouts in a row at Footprint Center.
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