Detroit — In the midst of playing through their best stretch of the season, the Pistons got to gauge their progress against the Phoenix Suns, who have the NBA’s best record.
They kept it close in the first half, but the defending Western Conference champions showed why they’re one of the favorites to make another deep run in the playoffs this season.
Behind an impressive performance from Devin Booker, the Suns rose to a 135-108 victory on Sunday afternoon at Little Caesars Arena.
BOX SCORE: Suns 135, Pistons 108
Cade Cunningham was having one of the best games of his rookie season before he was ejected in the third quarter. Cunningham had a spectacular dunk over Suns center Jalen Smith and pointed in the air — either at Smith or toward the Pistons’ bench — and the officials gave him his second technical foul, with 4:22 left in the period.
Cunningham finished with 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting, in 24 minutes and explained the reason for his pointing in that direction.
“I had my people right behind the bench. I went baseline to dunk the ball, and (Smith’s) right in between me and my people, so I probably should read that situation better,” said Cunningham, who was ejected for the first time this season. “I don’t really get into taunting too much. I’m usually chilling after the play happens or whatever, but I realized the situation after he teched me up.”
Cory Joseph had 21 points and seven assists and Trey Lyles 18 points and six rebounds for the Pistons (10-32), who begin a four-game western road trip on Tuesday against the Golden State Warriors — who have the second-best record in the league.
Booker was sensational for the Suns (33-9), posting 30 points, four rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes. He was 11-of-19 from the field, but he dominated in that crucial stretch in the third quarter, scoring nine straight Suns points during a 12-4 run. Booker had a highlight-reel putback dunk off a missed jump shot during that spurt.
“They’re a championship-caliber team; we know that. We’re not at that level yet. Our goal is to get there, but the way you have to get there is learn from the things you make mistakes on and learn from them,” coach Dwane Casey said. “I just don’t think that they felt us at all. Even when they did, they still made shots. Those are ones you have to learn from and grow from it.”
Before his ejection, Cunningham was having a good run himself, going back and forth in shot-making with Booker. Cunningham leads all rookies in scoring, and even though he missed the last 16 minutes, he had solid numbers, and a good lesson to take away.
“Cade was (getting into a groove) and it’s growth on his part. Our problem wasn’t the offensive end. We shot 46% and 36% from three (point-line). It was defensively and we missed 11 free throws,” Casey said. “Our problem was making them feel us defensively and letting them cut freely. We were supposed to be blitzing in some pick-and-rolls.
“We weren’t aggressive enough and that was our issue today. I thought offensively, he was getting into his groove as far as the offense was concerned. But as a young team, we have to understand both sides of the floor.”
The Pistons stayed close in the first quarter, as the Suns had a 39-35 margin. Phoenix hit 80% (16-of-20) from the field, while the Pistons were at 71% (15-of-21).
That gave the Pistons a blueprint of how they could play in longer stretches and develop a more consistent offensive chemistry but defensively is where the strides have to come.
“(We need) maybe just a little bit more resistance on shooters and stuff,” Cunningham said. “We knew they could really shoot the ball but I think, just our engagement has been pretty good.”
Phoenix took control in the second quarter, stretching the lead to 64-54 at halftime, but JaVale McGee (20 points and six rebounds) got going in the early minutes, scoring nine points in the first three-plus minutes and combining with Chris Paul to score the Suns’ first 14 points of the quarter.
The Suns kept a 103-82 lead entering the fourth quarter and led by as many as 28 points, and the Pistons didn’t threaten the rest of the way.