HOUSTON — There wasn’t a singular standout moment for Cade Cunningham on Wednesday. No flashy dunks, no-look assists or intricate dribble moves. Yet, he still had a big impact.
With less than five minutes remaining, Cunningham knocked down a 3-pointer to snap a 10-0 Houston Rockets run and give the Detroit Pistons a seven-point lead. He drew a charge from Jalen Green on the next possession. With 1:50 on the clock, he made a spinning layup past Jae’Sean Tate to extend the Pistons’ lead to 108-104. And on Detroit’s final possession, with about 15 seconds remaining, he found Saddiq Bey all alone in transition for a game-clinching layup.
PISTONS INSIDER: What we’ve learned, nine games in: Cunningham looks like he belongs
Cunningham and Green were in the spotlight Wednesday, as they headlined a nationally televised game between the Pistons and Rockets. While Green won the scoring battle, with 23 points, Cunningham ultimately played a huge part in the Pistons prevailing.
One play summed up the night for both players. Green exploded past Cunningham for a dunk toward the end of the third quarter, then talked smack to Cunningham immediately, earning a technical foul. Cunningham didn’t react, and indirectly addressed the moment after the game.
“It depends on what they’re saying. I’ll talk too, but depends on what they say,” Cunningham said. “Nothing that I heard tonight held any real weight to me, it was just all for cameras, I felt like. I wasn’t really tripping on anything, I was just trying to play the game.”
The Pistons picked up their second win of the season, defeating the Rockets at Toyota Center, 112-104. Jerami Grant was the best player on the floor, scoring 35 points and helping the Pistons take control in the second half with a 21-point third quarter. But Cunningham delivered as well, scoring 20 points while knocking down four of eight 3-point attempts. Cunningham did it on both ends of the floor, hitting clutch shots down the stretch and playing with energy on the defensive end, too.
It was the first of what should be many matchups between Cunningham and Green, 2021’s top two picks. The two will always be tied to one another. Green was talented enough to go No. 1 overall in most drafts. He’s a gifted athlete with explosive speed and leaping ability. He averaged an efficient 17.9 points per game in the G League last year — no small feat for a teenager.
But Cunningham is showing why he went No. 1. Despite a slow start to his rookie season — he missed training camp, preseason and five of Detroit’s first six games with an ankle sprain — he is finding his rhythm. Wednesday was arguably his best game thus far. He had multiple consecutive days of practice leading into the game, and he was noticeably more energetic in the fourth quarter, compared to his past games.
He wasn’t flawless, as he committed a sloppy turnover with a minute to play while attempting a wraparound pass to Isaiah Stewart. But his IQ has been evident from the start, and he set career highs in points, made shots (eight) and made 3-pointers (four) against Houston. His shooting is starting to pick up, and he stepped up in the fourth when the Pistons needed him.
“That’s what we saw in college when he was at Oklahoma State,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “He did a good job of commanding the ball. Seemed like the bigger the moment, the better he played. That’s showing true right now. I thought he made some good plays down the stretch, had a couple of good defensive stops down the stretch as well. Hit the big shot to put it up to four, I think he did. He’s got that gene. … All of our young players have a lot to learn, a lot to improve on. But it was good for us to get the win tonight and get some confidence and continue to grow as a group.
“Some guys just have it,” Casey continued. “ A guy that can command the ball and make plays in crunch time or in special situations. You feel comfortable with him with the ball. We ran some plays for him down the stretch. You feel comfortable with him doing it. But he’s shown that in summer league, when he was in college. That’s one reason why we drafted him, and we’re happy we did.”
Cunningham didn’t need extra motivation ahead of a big game, but he said his family and friends were “deep” in the arena. Cunningham is from Arlington, Texas, about four hours northwest of Houston. He was happy to be close to home, and there was a vocal contingent of Pistons fans at the game.
He’s beginning to find his comfort level five games into his NBA career, and he was in a good mood after the second win.
“I feel like throughout these games I’ve been able to play, each game I’m feeling more pep in my step, a little bit more comfortable,” Cunningham said. “That’s all I can ask for. I want to get better each and every day and try to be consistent. I don’t want to be up some days and then weighed down some other days. If I can just stay like that and stay level-headed, never too high, never too low, I feel like the season will be fine. It’s whenever you start getting your head mixed into the other things outside of that that you get in trouble.”
Contact Omari Sankofa II at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.