Nothing comes free for Pistons’ Cunningham in record offensive effort

Detroit News

Detroit — Pistons guard Cade Cunningham reached some unprecedented heights in Tuesday night’s 110-105 loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Cunningham became the only rookie in NBA history to reach all of these minimums in one game:  34 points, six 3-pointers, eight rebounds, eight assists, two steals and four blocked shots.

He also became the only rookie in league history to record six games with five-plus 3-pointers in the first 38 games of a career.

What Cunningham did not reach in the game — one in which he made 14 of a game-high 26 shots and was on the court for 39:50 — was the free-throw line.

That was difficult to comprehend, and continues a trend.

Cunningham is averaging only 2.1 free throw attempts per game, and ranks tied for 131st in the NBA in that category despite handling and shooting the ball so much.

More: Pistons’ McGruder making most of playing time since deal with Denver nixed

He was asked how he might get more trips to the free-throw line.

“Maybe use my voice more,” Cunningham said. “Maybe yell or something. But, I mean, just continue to play the game. We might need to win more games and get a little bit more respect from the referees for them to blow the whistle for us.

“You know, we can only control what we can control.”

The Pistons (11-36) have the second-worst record in the NBA to Orlando (9-39), and visit the Magic on Friday night in their next action.

Coach Dwane Casey was asked about the lack of his rookie leader’s free-throw opportunities.

“No question he’s a gamer,” Casey said. “He’s going to the basket and not getting the whistle. He’s got to keep his composure and it’s tough. You know, I feel for him because he’s going in there and getting hit. He’s not getting those calls, and I’m just telling him, ‘Talk to the officials and communicate with them with the right way.’

“He’s going to be in this league for a long time, and these officials are not going anywhere. Watching the film — he’s getting hit and they’re missing the calls. So, they’ve going to miss some of them. But he’s got to keep attacking, and using his size (6-foot-6, 217 pounds) and length.”

Cunningham was hot shooting all over the court against the Nuggets and went 6-for-9 (.667) behind the arc. He made a trio of 3-pointers in a span of 1:22 in the first quarter.

“It opens up the floor and opens up his driving game,” Casey said of the treys. “That’s one area that’s really improved with Cade is his 3-point shooting. And I’m a firm believer it’s contagious. When someone sees their teammate as hot as a firecracker, then the next guy’s going to be ready to (go) with it.”

Cunningham was 0-for-14 on 3-pointers in his first two games and had made just 20% through Nov. 28. However, he’s shooting .444 since Nov. 30.

Maintaining anything close to that percentage would be great. Consider that Steph Curry, the NBA’s all-time 3-point leader, is shooting .376 behind the arc this season.

“To put yourself in a position to win championships,” noted Casey, “you’ve got to make threes.”

Cunningham shot .335 on treys in one season at Oklahoma State, and that is his exact percentage more than halfway through his first pro season. Water tends to find its level.

How did Cunningham get back on track as a long-range shooter?

“I knew it was going to come because I know I’m a good shooter,” Cunningham said. “I can put the ball in the rim; I’ve been doing it for a while. So, it was just confidence in it and keeping it consistent has helped me a lot. But, shot selection, I feel like I’m taking ones that are great ones, that I feel I’m walking into when my feet are set.

“Early on, I might have an open one, but my feet were not set. But I was still shooting because it was open. But now I’m only taking the ones that feel comfortable for me, and my percentages went way up because of that.”

Against Denver, Cunningham also became the 14th player in NBA history to have this stat line minimum: 34 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four blocked shots and two steals. Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson are among those in the group.

Cunningham — who had a more-acceptable four turnovers in that game — said he has to cut down on those.

“I think just staying aggressive and staying locked in and taking care of the ball,” Cunningham said. “That’s one of the things that’s hurting the team right now — my turnovers. Especially being the guy with the ball in his hand for a lot of the game. So, if I can cut down on those, that will help us a lot.”

He has 5.3 assists per game to 3.6 turnovers and needs to approach the 2-to-1 ratio the league’s better players have. Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul leads the NBA with 10.2 assists and just 2.4 turnovers. Brooklyn’s James Harden is next with 10.1 assists and has 4.8 turnovers, followed by Atlanta’s Trae Young (9.3-to-4.1).

Even while growing, Cunningham said what’s meant the most to him this season is the “trust” his teammates and coaches have in him with the ball in his hands.

“They want me to make plays,” Cunningham said. “They want me to be aggressive more than anything.”

He said “not making my mind up about what I’m going to do before the play presents itself” is important, adding that “focusing on reads” during plays will bring “better outcomes.”

Casey saw it all coming together for Cunningham on Tuesday night.

“I thought the way he was seeing the floor, passing the ball, finding other people. Now, we’ve got to make shots when he does that. But you have to have a guy like that who can get his own shot no matter who is on him,” Casey said.

“They tried to semi-blitz him to keep him from turning the corner, and he figured that out. He really gave it to us on the offensive end — especially in the second half down the stretch.”

The “MotorCade” is navigating the rookie route just fine.

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.

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