HOUSTON — Cade Cunningham vs. Jalen Green. It’s a matchup that sells itself. That’s good news for ESPN, because the Detroit Pistons have little interest in making Wednesday’s game a bigger deal than it is: one of 82.
The 2021 NBA draft’s first overall pick will take on the second overall pick Wednesday, when the Pistons face the Houston Rockets in a nationally televised ESPN game — the only one on the schedule for both teams. It’s a contest fans on both sides have had circled for months.
Green has done his part to hype the rivalry up. In an interview after the draft with Yahoo Sports this summer, he said he didn’t want to live in Detroit despite wanting to be the No. 1 pick, and said Detroit is a boring city. This was less than a month after he told GQ that he did, in fact, want to live in Detroit.
When asked Tuesday about his anticipation for the game, Cunningham’s focus was elsewhere. Born and raised in Arlington, Texas, Cunningham said he’ll have plenty of family in attendance. Otherwise, it’s another NBA game.
“I’ve played a bunch of basketball games in my life,” Cunningham said. “I’ve played in big basketball games that meant a lot to the media and to the fans, whatever. And so I’m going to try to approach this the same way. It’s the Pistons vs. the Rockets now, and we’ve gotta try to go get a win.”
It won’t be the first time Cunningham and Green have faced each other. Their first matchup after the draft was in summer league in Las Vegas, and it drew one of the largest crowds of the week. Green scored 25 points, and Cunningham scored 20 and knocked down four 3-pointers.
Despite the underlying hype, the Pistons (1-8) have been the NBA’s worst-shooting team through the early portion of the season. Dwane Casey is coaching a young team, and keeping distractions to a minimum.
“They are like us, similarities, but there’s no individual rivalries, team rivalries,” Casey said. “Christian (Wood) is a part of our program like a lot of other guys around the league. It’s the Houston Rockets vs. the Detroit Pistons, and for us, if we look at it any other way, we don’t have that much focus anyway. We’ve gotta make sure we stay locked in to exactly our job at hand and not get into individual rivalries or trade rivalries or whatever it is.”
The Pistons and Rockets (1-9) are, in many ways, similar teams. They both began rebuilds in 2020, and Houston moved on from James Harden and the Pistons parted with Blake Griffin. They both selected players in this year’s draft with franchise-altering ceilings. The two teams made a mutually-beneficial trade, the gist of which saw the Pistons send Wood and a future first-round pick to the Rockets in exchange for the draft pick that became Isaiah Stewart.
They are also two of the remaining three NBA teams, including the New Orleans Pelicans, with a single win. Neither Cunningham nor Green have gotten off to hot starts. Both have shown flashes, but Cunningham is shooting 23.2% overall and 14.3% from 3 as he shakes off rust after missing training camp, preseason and part of the regular season. Green hasn’t been much better, shooting 35.3% overall and 28.3% from 3.
Cunningham finally participated in full practices over the weekend, with the Pistons getting four days off. It allowed him to review some of the mistakes he made in the four games he has played, and get better acclimated with the playbook.
“I haven’t been able to practice with the team like that since I’ve been back,” Cunningham said. “It’s been really good. We get to get our plays in some more, just being around each other some more in practice and get the togetherness a little better.”
Cunningham and the rest of the team certainly are aware Wednesday’s game will have broad appeal. But to maximize their chances to win, they’re dialing back the external pressure to play up the game.
“We can’t afford to get caught up in anything like that,” Casey said. “It’s going to be against their five players. They have an excellent, athletic young team, a lot like ourselves. We can’t afford any brain power, brain energy used on that portion of the game. That’s going to be our focus going in.”