Detroit — No matter how much you want to look at it as a five-man game for the Detroit Pistons, the line on the box score that resonates the most is the one with Cade Cunningham’s name on it.
Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, had the opportunity for plenty of scoring in Friday night’s 96-90 loss to the high-flying Brooklyn Nets.
But there was the drive to the bucket where an easy shot swirled out, and the open baseline jumper late in the game that also rimmed out. There was the one-on-one drive against Kevin Durant that produced a good shot that didn’t drop.
Now, he did shake-and-bake Durant to drive for a basket and rebounded before firing a long outlet pass to Kelly Olynyk for an easy score down low. But he didn’t make a significant impact until helping the Pistons erase a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter.
Cunningham hit a jumper and then a 3-pointer. He rebounded a miss by Durant, and Detroit trailed by only two points, 88-86, with four minutes to play.
It was anyone’s game, and Cunningham hit a trey from the right corner to make it 90-89 with just over two minutes left. He missed another shot on the next possession that could’ve provided the lead, and nobody else on the Pistons could hit another basket.
However, Detroit had real life thanks to Cunningham — in his fourth game back — and his hustling teammates until Durant drove to score with 12.9 seconds left for a five-point lead.
“It’s just going to take the young man some games to get his sea legs,” said Pistons coach Dwane Casey, alluding to the nearly entire preseason Cunningham missed with a sprained ankle. “You are going to see him grow and grow. I liked what he brought to the table tonight.”
Teammate Saddiq Bey said of Cunningham’s fourth-quarter spurt: “It was great rhythm. … He’s not afraid to take the shots in the big moments. These are his first games back, and he’s trying to figure it all out. But he did a great job of figuring it out and asserting himself.”
Detroit (1-8) made it a game against the Nets (6-3), who were led in scoring by Durant’s 29 points and also had LaMarcus Aldridge (16), James Harden (13) and ex-Piston Blake Griffin (13) heat up after intermission.
Cunningham finished with a team-high 17 points (6-for-17 shooting) with four rebounds. Durant, for one, was impressed.
“I love Cade’s game,” Durant said. “I think he’s going to be a tough, tough player for a long, long time. I got to know him when he was in high school so we got to build a little relationship. To play against him in the NBA is sweet. We had a lot of conversations about being on this level and what it took. To see him out here battling through some injuries in the start, but to come out here and play aggressive tonight and hit some big shots for him; I’m happy for him and looking forward to seeing his career.”
Olynyk (14 points, team-high 10 rebounds and two assists) got Detroit’s offense going with his ability to pass, drive and shoot from outside. However, he missed one of two free throws with 12.9 seconds remaining to keep it a two-possession game for Brooklyn.
Casey went to the silky smooth, 6-foot-11 veteran from Gonzaga four minutes into the game. Starting center Isaiah Stewart, coming off what Casey called a quality performance against the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night, picked up his second foul at that point.
Detroit had not scored, and was trailing, 7-0.
Olynyk quickly hit an open, 13-foot fadeaway jumper.
Then he drove up the lane before dishing a pass to his right that Josh Jackson immediately fed to Cunningham, who drained a 3-pointer from the corner.
It was the kind of ball movement that beats defenses and results in points.
Then 6-foot-8 swingman Bey got a break-away dunk off his own steal and the score was tied, 7-7, just 55 seconds after Olynyk entered.
“Kelly’s IQ is off the charts,” Casey said. “He gave us some good looks and spacing on the court.”
Detroit hung with Brooklyn for the rest of the half, holding down the viable scoring duo of Durant (28.3 points per game) and Harden (18.3). They combined for 16 points in the first half, which finished tied at 39.
Bey was in the starting lineup with starting guard Killian Hayes (left thumb injury) missing his fifth consecutive game. Hayes went through the pre-game shootaround and drills with hopes of playing, but it was determined that he remain inactive for at least one game.
Bey brought energy with every minute played. There was a play late in the third quarter when he guarded Harden, who lost the ball and let it roll to Detroit’s side of the court, knowing it was a turnover the instant he touched it.
However, he forgot about Bey, who was trailing and picked up the rolling ball before dribbling in for an easy dunk.
“I play to the whistle,” said Bey, acknowledging the crowd for the spirit they brought to him and his teammates at Little Caesars Arena.
Bey finished with 12 points, and guard Cory Joseph came off the bench to equal that total. Stewart had eight points and nine rebounds.
Detroit shot .379 from the field and .324 from 3-point range. It ranked last in the NBA in both of those statistics, and did improve some on treys while shooting even a bit lower percentage from the field.
“I think that leprechaun is up on the rim knocking balls off,” said Casey, smiling. “We’ve got to get that monkey off our backs and get the shots falling.”
While the Pistons didn’t lack for hustle, they couldn’t keep pace on the scoreboard for all 48 minutes with one of the NBA’s most explosive teams.
Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.