The Detroit Pistons aren’t in the market for moral victories, but that’s what they got Thursday night against the Suns — who came out on top on the scoreboard, 114-103, in Phoenix.
Detroit staged a comeback against the league’s winningest team before running out of offense in the final minutes.
What got the Pistons back in the game — cutting the deficit to three points after trailing by as many as 18 — and down by six points with 3:41 to play?
“It was the resilience of the guys,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “They are very resilient and bounced back. We had it close, but then some of our dumb mistakes jumped in front of us. We have to learn from those.
“There were some positives, but it didn’t take away the sting of not being able to stick it out to win.”
It was the eighth straight defeat for the Pistons (4-18), who have the NBA’s worst record.
It was the franchise-record 18th consecutive win for the Suns (19-3), owners of the league’s best record just three seasons after going 19-63.
Detroit, scratching and clawing to the end, was led in scoring by forward Jerami Grant (34 points, six rebounds) and guard Cade Cunningham, who scored 19 with five assists despite spending half of the first half on the bench with foul trouble.
Center Isaiah Stewart had 12 points and 14 rebounds, and Casey praised him for “going against one of the longest centers in our league” in 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton (17 points, 12 rebounds).
“He got some tough, tough rebounds,” Casey said. “This is a championship-caliber team, and you put yourself in a position (to win) and it’s not anything great. That’s what’s frustrating from a coaching standpoint. Not frustrating, but it gets you a little anxious.
“As long as we learn from that, good things will happen to our record.”
Phoenix, despite not having injured shooting guard and leading scorer Devin Booker, still had seven players in double figures. Cameron Johnson (19), Cameron Payne (19) and Mikal Bridges (18) paced the scoring. Point guard Chris Paul (12 points, 12 assists) led the attack.
The Pistons went 0-5 on the road trip that concluded with this game, and they next play Monday night against Oklahoma City at Little Caesars Arena.
Detroit trailed by as many as 18 points entering the third quarter, but outscored the Suns, 30-18, in that quarter, cutting the deficit to 87-81 entering the fourth quarter.
The Pistons thought they tied the game, 82-all, on a 3-pointer by reserve guard Hamidou Diallo before the shot was disallowed on a videotape review. Not long after that, Diallo (five points, two steals, two assists and one rebound) took an elbow in the nose from Cunningham and had to leave the game briefly to address blood flowing from the nose.
“Hamidou Diallo is playing some of his best basketball right now, all-around,” Casey said. “Not just the scoring, but he’s one of our better pick-and-roll defenders. I’m really proud to see that from him.”
Cunningham and Grant sparked the comeback. Both scored 12 in the 12-minute quarter highlighted by a 19-5 Pistons’ run. Cunningham hit a bucket and then a 3-pointer to make it 82-79, but it ended up that Detroit never got closer.
“Cade did a good job of keeping his hands back,” said Casey, demonstrating hands up and back to avoid fouls. Cunningham played another 26 minutes without picking up a fourth foul.
“It was a learning experience, and I thought he learned from it. The great thing about Cade is he’s a quick learner. He and Killian (Hayes) play off each other, and they are good for each other. That’s something Pistons fans should get used to for a long time.
“We try to get a feel for what we can run with both those two in the game with their strengths. Cade shooting the ball the way he is helps tremendously. A tough learning experience this entire road trip for two young backcourt mates. But hopefully we learn from it because the hits just keep on coming.”
The Pistons led, 5-4, but never again.
Cunningham was called for his third foul midway through the first quarter and played only 5:17 before taking a seat on bench. He came back with 7:20 remaining in the second quarter. Casey had Frank Jackson at the scorer’s table but couldn’t get him in quick enough to save Cunningham from committing his third foul.
Cunningham played cautiously — trying to avoid a fourth foul and being successful in that regard — and missed both shots taken upon returning to action. But he found a way to play in foul trouble in the second half.
Cunningham was 2-for-4 while canning his only 3-pointer for five points in the first quarter.
He didn’t get a chance to play against Booker, who injured a hamstring in Tuesday’s win over Golden State and sat this one out. Booker, born in Grand Rapids and spending some of his freshman year at Grandville High, is averaging 23.2 points.
Booker left for Moss Point (Mississippi) High when his father — who played briefly in the NBA — finished his long pro career and returned to his native state. Melvin Booker played at Missouri, and his son narrowed his choices to Michigan, Michigan State, Florida, Mizzou and his final selection of Kentucky.
Landry Shamet replaced Booker in the starting lineup, and finished with 14 points.
Hayes picked up the scoring void left by rookie Cunningham by scoring 10 in the first half. He was 4-for-5 from the field, hitting both 3-point attempts. He’d reached double-figures four times in 16 previous games, with his season-high of 13 coming Nov. 13 at Toronto.
However, Hayes missed all four shots in the second half and never scored again.
The second-year point guard is playing well in the three games since returning from a thumb injury on his left shooting hand, and is wearing a splint for protection.
Casey was impressed with what he believes his two young guards learned and how they responded to playing in a backcourt against Paul.
“When you’re playing against Chris Paul, you’re playing against one of the smartest players in our league,” Casey said. “He’s the best pick-and-roll player. He knows where everybody is on the floor.
“To learn from him, how he controls the game with the ball, and how he understands every situation. So, there’s a game inside the game, and they should learn.”
Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.