Houston — It was more than just a head-to-head matchup between the top two picks from the NBA draft.
In the second half, it turned out to be a breakout game for Jerami Grant, and the marquee matchup between the Pistons’ Cade Cunningham and the Houston Rockets’ Jalen Green took a back seat.
Grant carried the Pistons with 21 of his 35 points in the third quarter and the Pistons rallied to take a 112-104 victory over the Rockets on Wednesday night in their only nationally televised game of the season.
“He got us going with his ability to attack the paint and get to the rim that set up his 3-point shooting was big for us — and we needed every one of them,” coach Dwane Casey said. “Not only did he do that; he did a good job of making sure he got some rebounds and kept us going that way — it was a big night for Jerami.”
The ESPN broadcast was based on the potential of a Cunningham-Green head-to-head matchup, and that didn’t disappoint, either. Cunningham finished with 20 points and four rebounds and Green 23 points and five rebounds, but Cunningham will take the victory over winning the individual competition.
“I felt good,” Cunningham said. “It’s a much better feeling getting a win after a game. Good energy, for sure.”
Both teams were struggling to start the season, with just one win apiece, but the Pistons (2-8) prevailed in the fourth quarter behind Saddiq Bey (16 points and nine rebounds) and Cory Joseph (five points and five assists).
The Rockets (1-10) trailed, 82-79, heading into the fourth quarter, and Joseph hit a 3-pointer and Isaiah Stewart added a putback for an eight-point lead. Stewart committed his fifth foul and got a technical foul for arguing the call.
That started a 5-2 spurt for the Rockets, but the Pistons had an answer.
Kelly Olynyk (13 points and six rebounds) hit a 3-pointer, which ignited an 11-2 run, six straight points by Bey, including a putback that gave the Pistons their largest lead of the game, 100-86, at the 7:18 mark.
The Rockets had an answer, with a 3-pointer and a lay-in by Eric Gordon and a putback by Jae’Sean Tate (14 points and eight rebounds). Kevin Porter Jr. (18 points, five rebounds and five assists) missed a pair of free throws but hit a 3-pointer to trim the lead to four with 4:37 remaining.
Cunningham hit a 3-pointer and the Rockets responded with a putback by Tate and two free throws by Porter to get within 103-100. After a free throw by Killian Hayes, the Rockets got closer with a 3-pointer by Gordon, and the lead was down to one with 2:30 left.
Stewart scored off an offensive foul and Tate split a pair of free throws to make it 106-104 at the 2:05 mark, but Cunningham scored a tough lay-in on a drive to push the lead to four. Grant added a pair of free throws and Bey had the exclamation point with a dunk with 13.6 seconds left to make it 112-104.
“(Cunningham) did a good job down the stretch. He’s got that gene where he can perform under pressure,” Casey said. “Some guys just have ‘it.’ Some guys can make the plays in crucial situations. We ran plays for him down the stretch and you feel comfortable doing that.”
The third-quarter explosion was the highest point total for any quarter in Grant’s career, and he was all over the stat sheet. He started with a jumper, then scored eight straight Pistons points, with a 3-pointer and a three-point play, then a lay-in at the 8:45 mark.
Grant had another 3-pointer and a three-point play in the quarter, plus a free throw off a technical foul and a jumper. He finished with a pair of free throws that helped the Pistons get the lead to 80-75 before a final flurry pulled the Rockets to 82-79 entering the final period.
There was one flare-up in the Cunningham-Green matchup, when Green got loose for a vicious dunk, and then got a technical foul for screaming toward Cunningham, who didn’t get caught up in the trash talk.
Cunningham said he does a little talking himself, but he handles the talk easily by not worrying about it so much.
“It depends on what they say. I’ll talk too, but it depends on what they’re saying,” Cunningham said. “Nothing that I heard tonight held any real weight to me — it was as all for cameras, I felt like. I wasn’t really tripping on anything; I was just trying to play the game.”