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The Phoenix Suns have been short-handed because of NBA health and safety protocol, but that hasn’t kept them from competing for the league’s best record.

Head coach Monty Williams, starters Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder and backups JaVale McGee and Abdel Nader all were sidelined by COVID-19 protocol as the Suns routed the Hornets 133-99 on Sunday in Charlotte.

It’s unclear if anyone will return when the Suns conclude a three-game road trip by facing the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday.

The road trip began with a 123-108 loss in Boston in which the Celtics were more physical than Phoenix and led by as many as 30 points.

“We wanted to come out strong first and foremost on the defensive end,” said Chris Paul, who scored just seven points but helped seven teammates score in double figures with 16 assists against the Hornets.

“With (Paul), your hands have got to be ready at all times,” said Jalen Smith, who tied a career-high with 19 points and added 12 rebounds against Charlotte. “I have been picking his brain and he’s been able to tell me how to get on the court and how to keep improving.”

The Suns raced to a 73-47 halftime lead and led by as many as 43 points in the second half.

“I can never just automatically know I’m going to shoot this many shots,” Paul said. “I’ve got to feel the game and see how it’s going. I think you can be aggressive, too, without necessarily shooting — just putting pressure on the defense.”

Assistant Kevin Young has been the acting head coach in Williams’ absence.

The Pelicans got their top two scorers — Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas — back Monday, but it wasn’t enough in a 115-104 home loss to the Utah Jazz.

Valanciunas, returning from a one-game absence while he was in the health and safety protocol, had 25 points to lead six New Orleans scorers in double figures. But Ingram, who had missed the last two games because of Achilles soreness, had just 10 points as he made just three of 18 shots.

Ingram made just 1 of 7 3-pointers, and the Pelicans were just 12 of 46 from beyond the arc.

“We’ve got to keep pushing, get in the gym as much as we can, and keep it moving,” said Josh Hart, who scored 15 points. “So, it’s a tough one, but the beautiful thing about the league is we’ve got another one tomorrow.”

The Pelicans, who began the new year with a 136-113 loss at defending champion Milwaukee on Saturday, are in the midst of three home games against the best teams in West over four days. The stretch concludes against NBA-leading Golden State on Thursday.

“We have some good teams coming in,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “Our guys are well-aware of it, and we’ve been in this situation before where we’ve played against good teams — on the road, at home. We just have to come out and play our style of basketball.”

–Field Level Media