Some things just can’t be explained.
Pistons Rookie of the Year candidate Cade Cunningham scored a career-high 34 points Tuesday while also grabbing eight rebounds and dishing eight assists in a dynamite game against Denver in Detroit.
Then Cunningham missed his first 12 shots from the field in Friday night’s 119-103 loss at Orlando before finally making a layup midway through the third quarter. He finished with six points on 2-for-15 shooting and missed all four 3-pointers, while adding four assists and two rebounds.
When asked to explain the drastic turnaround from one game to the next, Pistons coach Dwane Casey said, “It’s this league. There’s great players, great athletes in this league, and I thought that Orlando did a good job of preparing for him. We felt like we prepared for what they were about to do, and we tip our hat to the Orlando Magic tonight.”
Franz Wagner, the 6-foot-10 Michigan forward taken seven picks after No. 1 pick Cunningham in the NBA Draft, led all scorers with 24 points as Orlando (10-40) beat the Pistons (11-37) for the first time in three encounters between teams with the league’s two worst records.
Magic guard Gary Harris, a Michigan State product, contributed 10 points to the winning cause after scoring 28 against Detroit in the most recent loss to the Pistons. He didn’t score in the second half, but helped Orlando pull away.
Cunningham wasn’t alone in struggling for Detroit, which lost its fourth consecutive game.
“Their length and athleticism really gave us problems,” said Casey. “You spot a team 20 points (39-19) in the first quarter, and after that it was even. But we just didn’t come out ready to approach that physicality. They did an excellent job of getting into us and not letting us execute what we were trying to do.”
The Pistons’ entire starting lineup came up short in this one as Orlando used a 15-2 run in the early-going to build a 22-point lead in the first half. Detroit’s reserves outscored the starters, 34-17, before the intermission.
Forward Trey Lyles (18 points) and Rodney McGruder (10 points) both came off the bench to score 10 in the first half, and guard Killian Hayes continued to play well in his third game since Casey opted to “experiment” and start 11-year veteran Cory Joseph in the backcourt with Cunningham.
Hayes responded with seven points, three assists and zero turnovers in the first half before finishing with 11 points, six assists, one steal and no turnovers.
Still, Hayes and the reserve unit, which also got 12 points from guard Frank Jackson, weren’t nearly enough to overcome the early, crater-like deficit.
“Thirty-nine points in the first quarter – it’s tough to come back from that,” Hayes said. “I think our defense was lacking tonight. We fought back by getting stops and running the floor.”
Casey said Hayes “made good decisions” all night long.
“I think he’s more relaxed,” Casey said of Hayes before facing Orlando. “He plays with a little bit more confidence. He’s in control more, so to speak. Not really figured it out: ‘Does Cade handle it? Do I handle it?’ Cory’s just more experienced, more relaxed doing that. So, I feel like right now, that’s a good fit.
“We just feel Cade needed another ball handler out there with him, and the way Cory has been playing has been great. This also gives Killian the ability to be the primary ball-handler with the second unit and also the third ball-handler with the first unit.”
Nothing is set in stone on this lineup adjustment, but Hayes averaged seven points and 6.5 assists in his first two games off the bench. He was averaging 6.2 points and 3.8 assists coming into Orlando.
Joseph finished with 10 points, six rebounds, one assist and one turnover.
The Pistons cut the lead to seven points in the third quarter, but then the Magic responded to build their biggest lead of the night to 24 points.
Detroit will visit Orlando March 17th in the final meeting between the two teams.
“We’ve just got to be mentally ready when we walk out of the locker room,” Casey said of that next matchup with the Magic. “They came out with the right mentality (Friday night) and we didn’t.
“If you don’t walk out with the right attitude, the right approach, wherever you play is going to be what happened in the first quarter tonight. Our second unit cut it (down) and it was the right approach. Our starters didn’t come out ready to go, and that’s on me.
“I didn’t go crazy enough before the game, but I shouldn’t have to.”
Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.