There was no shortage of positive developments for the Detroit Pistons on Monday night. They had a season-best performance from behind-the-arc, knocking down 19 3-pointers on 37 attempts. Multiple players hit big shots down the stretch to help them come back from a 22-point deficit. Saddiq Bey continued his offensive surge, scoring 29 points on just 14 shots.
But during the Pistons’ best win of the season, Cade Cunningham was undoubtedly their best player. And Monday was likely the best game of his young career: A career-high 29 points, eight assists, two blocks and two steals to power the Pistons to a 126-116 win against the Utah Jazz at Little Caesars Arena.
Cunningham shook off a slow start to deliver a dominant third quarter. He generated 27 Pistons points during the period, which saw Detroit outscore the NBA’s best offense 40-27. He scored 18 points himself in the quarter on seven shots and dished three assists for three 3s.
After missing his first five shots of the night, Cunningham drained 10 of his final 12 attempts. It was a masterful second half, as he scored 24 points on 10-for-12 shooting, tallied six assists and blocked two shots in 19:29 minutes.
Everything was on display for the 2021 No. 1 overall pick. He made five 3s, both off the catch and off the dribble. The Jazz were without three-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert (health and safety protocols) and Cunningham took advantage by challenging Utah at the rim. He finished a pair of 3-point plays in the second half to give the Pistons an 83-82 lead — their first of the night at the end of the third quarter — and then midway through the fourth to extend their lead to 108-100.
His performance was a reminder of why he was the near-consensus best prospect in a stacked draft. Monday was his 30th NBA game and he led the Pistons to a comeback win against one of the NBA’s best teams in the Jazz (28-13). The coaching staff put the ball in his hands after halftime and the 20-year-old delivered.
“I know at halftime he had just made two shots going into the half, and we talked at half about how he’s feeling better about his game right now,” assistant coach Rex Kalamian said, filling in for Dwane Casey, who entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols before the game. “Let’s try to double down, get him the first two plays in pick-and-rolls and let him attack to start the third. He was feeling better about his game and it’s always easier, especially when you’re a young player, to see the ball go through the rim to come back and continue that and try to double down on it. He did that. I’m really proud of his game tonight.”
“I just wanted to stay in the same mindset I was in,” Cunningham added. “In the first quarter, I missed some good looks. They all felt good. I didn’t really lose any confidence in how the game was going to go for me from then. Going into the second half, I just wanted to add a little extra oomph to my game and I’m glad it turned out the way it turned out.”
The Pistons (9-30) have won four of six in 2022, and had a lot to be happy about Monday.
After falling behind by 22 midway through the second quarter, they outscored the Jazz 56-30 through the end of the third quarter to take an 88-84 lead. The Pistons missed seven of their first eight 3s, but knocked down a franchise-high 15 in the second half on 23 attempts. Cory Joseph (16 points, 4-for-4 from 3) knocked down three triples in the final period to help the Pistons close out the win. Bey, who scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, also knocked down a pair of 3s in the final period.
“Shooting the ball is contagious,” Cunningham said. “Once somebody can get going, it usually will rub off on the rest of the group. It’s all about sharing the ball and getting guys the ball in their spot and getting good looks. That’s all you can ask for. The basketball gods will take care of you if you’re doing that.”
The lessons Casey and the rest of his staff have been preaching all season for the Pistons are beginning to click. It was evident Monday, when they won the second half by 23 points, just as it was evident during their past three wins. Hamidou Diallo made two clutch buckets Saturday to seal a win over the Orlando Magic, and the Pistons played a strong 48 minutes in defeating the Milwaukee Bucks on the road last Monday, two days after stunning the San Antonio Spurs on New Year’s Day with six G League call-ups.
Of course, they also lost to the Charlotte Hornets and Memphis Grizzlies by a combined 59 points in back-to-back games last week. But the roster appears to be growing up, despite Frank Jackson in COVID-19 protocols and Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk injured.
Kalamian said their previous eight players in protocols returned to the team with a renewed focus, and it’s showing on the court.
“It’s the same thing that coach Casey has been preaching all along, since training camp about growing and getting better and playing together, playing with pace offensively,” Kalamian said. “I think yes, to answer your question, we are coming together and we are doing some of those things. It’s been a crazy year and guys have been out with injury or illness, and we’re starting to get fresh, healthy bodies back.
“I think that some of the players that were out over the past two weeks also, you’ll have to ask them, but they see the game sometimes when you watch the game on TV, you see it in a different perspective. We’ve gotten back some really focused and determined players off this illness that we just went through, which started at Miami, and kind of lingered and kinda caught everybody. These guys came back and they are doing the things that we are asking them to do. It’s good to see that type of growth.”