Houston — The cameras were there, and as much as there could be, the hype was all around a matchup of two one-win teams.
The Pistons and Houston Rockets matched up on Wednesday night at Toyota Center and with all the attention surrounding Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green, the performance by Jerami Grant took center stage and put the rookies in the background.
Grant finished with 35 points, including 21 in the third quarter of the Pistons’ 112-104 victory.
The rookies were impressive in their own right, but with two struggling teams, the best player on the court was Grant, who was on the cusp of being an All-Star last season, and he’s picking up where he left off.
He’s averaging 16.6 points and 5 rebounds, but he’s also showing up more on defense and on Wednesday, he figured out ways to keep the Pistons in the game when they appeared to be fading away in the third quarter.
“We had to be aggressive coming up,” Grant said. “We’ve been giving up the lead in the third quarter.”
Here are some takeaways from the Pistons’ second win of the season:
Top two rookies
The marquee matchup was between the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the draft, and although Cade Cunningham started the game defending Jalen Green, there weren’t many head-to-head battles that warranted much attention.
Green did have an open lane late in the third quarter and he finished with an emphatic dunk. He turned and screamed in Cunningham’s direction, and drew a technical foul for his outburst. Cunningham said he handles trash talk a certain way, but he didn’t pay too much attention to Green on Wednesday.
“It depends on what they’re saying. I’ll talk too,” Cunningham said. “Nothing that I heard tonight held any weight — it was all for the cameras.”
Cunningham got the win, which was the big takeaway on the pairing of precocious rookies. Their scoring was about the same and Green had more shots, but the Pistons leaned more on Grant’s big game with 35 points than on Cunningham.
Cade finding his rhythm
Cunningham looked much more comfortable on the offensive end. He finished with 20 points and finished 8-of-18 from the field and 4-of-8 on 3-pointers. He wasn’t forcing shots, and with his 3-point proficiency and Jerami Grant’s huge game, he was able to get better looks at the rim.
Cunningham found his spots, but the biggest basket of the came in the final two minutes, when he had a crafty spinning drive to the rim and got it to fall, pushing the Pistons’ lead to 108-104 at the 1:50 mark.
He didn’t seem to force shots and held his composure throughout the game, not falling into the hype that surrounded the game.
“Some guys just have ‘it’ and a guy can command the ball and make plays in crunch time or in special situations,” Casey said. “I feel comfortable with him with the ball and we ran some plays for him down the stretch, so you feel comfortable with doing it.
“He’s shown that in Summer League and when he was at Oklahoma State in college. That’s one reason why we drafted him and we’re happy we did.”
The Pistons had to shuffle the rotation because of early foul trouble that continued throughout the game. Cunningham had two fouls by the 8:24 mark of the first quarter, as the Pistons held a comfortable 11-2 lead.
After Cunningham went to the bench, the Rockets went on a 14-2 run over the next five minutes. Isaiah Stewart got his second foul at 5:11 of the first period, then his third at 7:36 of the second quarter. Stewart got his fourth foul less than two minutes into the third quarter and his fifth early in the fourth quarter.
It was Kelly Olynyk who fouled out (Stewart didn’t) late in the game. The foul issues changed the rotations and forced Olynyk to play primarily with the starters and Stewart with the second group.
“I didn’t like that I kind of took myself out of it so early. I should have just been a little bit smarter in those situations,” Cunningham said.
“They took a run and the same group that came in, they made a little run, but then we got right back to it and started making plays, and we were fine. I want to be out there to help my team, but I know that my teammates are going to have my back and do their jobs as well.”
Under the radar
Josh Jackson’s performance won’t go down as one of the most important of the game, but he has some quality minutes and quality production, with eight points, eight rebounds and four assists in 19 minutes.
It was an unsung production, but Casey pointed out how important it was — along with Saddiq Bey’s six points in the fourth quarter — in securing the win.
“It didn’t get lost on the coaching staff. I thought Josh had a big block also. With Saddiq, I thought he his scoring was right on time, when we needed it. Those six points, in that stretch, was really important and we needed it,” Casey said.
“Josh came in defensively and set the tone, ran the floor and made the right decisions on the break. Those were huge for him coming off the bench.”
Casey also pointed to Killian Hayes’ game, which had a yeoman stat line, but there were some other standout takeaways.
“Killian was 1-for-4 tonight but I thought he did an excellent job defensively,” Casey said. “A lot of times, the things he does are not going to show up on the scoresheet, but I thought he was as solid as you could possibly be.”