Pistons start slow, finish strong in comeback win over Cavaliers

Detroit News
By Steve Kornacki |  Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — Pistons guard Frank Jackson saw to it that another slow start by his team didn’t result in falling behind by so many points that there was no contest to be had.

Jackson (19 points) came off the bench Sunday night along with Trey Lyles (15 points) four minutes into a game in which Detroit had yet to score.

Jackson kept his team afloat and rookie guard Cade Cunningham recovered from a scoreless first half by scoring 19 and delivering 10 assists in 115-105 comeback victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers that broke a four-game losing streak.

Jackson kept his team afloat and rookie guard Cade Cunningham recovered from a scoreless first half by scoring 19 and delivering 10 assists in 115-105 comeback victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers that broke a four-game losing streak.

Cunningham had 10 rebounds, too, to record his second NBA triple-double and turn Little Caesars Arena into a party zone for Pistons fans. He hit two big 3-pointers down the stretch, including the dagger shot with a minute and a half to go for a nine-point lead.

“He’s a clutch player,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “He has ‘it’ down the stretch. He didn’t get frustrated. … And Cleveland’s got some pit bulls at that position that were into him.”

BOX SCORE: Pistons 115, Cavs 105

Cunningham showed a special mental toughness in turning the page on a miserable first half to produce a memorable second half.

“You reflect a lot but you can’t be a prisoner of the first half,” Cunningham said.

Jackson scored 13 in seven minutes in the first quarter, cutting a 15-point deficit to two. He scored on a finger roll drive a few minutes into the second half to cut it to one, but the Pistons didn’t take a lead until the fourth quarter.

“I can’t say enough about our bench that saved us again,” Casey said. “Frank Jackson comes in and has a big night.”

Of Lyles, Casey added, “He was hotter than fish grease.”

Saddiq Bey, scoring with his feathery outside shooting touch and on quick, flamboyant drives to the hoop, also came up big with a game-high 31 points. Forward Isaiah Stewart came alive in the fourth quarter to finish with 14 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.

Detroit (12-37) put it on the Cavaliers (30-20), who featured the balanced scoring and all-around games of point guard Darius Garland (24 points, seven assists), center Jarrett Allen (15 points, nine rebounds) and forwards Evan Mobley (18 points, nine rebounds) and Dean Wade (14 points).

“Here they go again.”

That’s what Pistons fans had to be thinking when their team found itself down, 15-0, just one game after trailing by 20 after one quarter.

Cunningham had another slow start.

Two nights after missing his first 12 shots and scoring six points in Orlando, Cunningham missed his first 10 against Cleveland.

Cunningham, seconds after a timeout was called midway through the second quarter, stopped and swished a short shot. It seemed as if he simply needed to see the ball reaching the net, even with the game clock off.

Most of his shots didn’t come close to dropping, and he pleaded his case for a defensive foul after back-to-back shots down low missed. He took another shot near the basket that missed by over a foot.

Casey told him in huddles: “You’re rushing things…Slow down.”

Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff, prior to the game, mapped out his strategy to hold down Cunningham, who was averaging 16.0 points: “Keep size on him. Make him finish over the top of us, and just try to keep him out of the paint as much as we can.”

Finally, after making a pair of free throws to get in the scoring column, Cunningham drove past the 6-foot-11 Allen and Wade to drop in a shot. He was fouled and added the free throw before making three consecutive field-goal attempts and going 6-for-11 the rest of the way.

Cory Joseph an ‘aggressive’ complement to Cade Cunningham in Pistons’ starting backcourt

Still, it was his playmaking that stood out most. None of Cunningham’s assists were prettier than a half-court bounce pass that hit Bey in stride before he scored and was fouled on what became a three-point play.

Lyles and Cunningham, standing at mid-court, smiled and pumped their fists in unison.

“I tried to run to the lane and he found me,” said Bey, sounding like a receiver getting open for his quarterback. “It was a hell of a pass.”

Casey said, “Only a few guys in our league can make that pass and complete it. But we’re not preaching that pass.”

He smiled, realizing special players can make their own rules sometimes.

The Pistons rallied behind their rookie leader, too.

“He’s the floor general and we trust him,” Bey said. “He had resiliency.”

Casey added, “I was proud of the way Cade stayed with it. He didn’t lose his head, didn’t lose his mind.”

Seven-footer Mobley was drafted No. 3 overall, two spots behind Cunningham, and showed why he also has a great future.

Casey paid Mobley this compliment two hours before tip-off: “He has every skill you look for in a big guy. Kevin Durant, I don’t know. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on him. But it’s not too crazy of a thought to think about in that light.”

But, when all was said and done Sunday, it was Cunningham who stole the show.

Cunningham said he knew the games played by him and Mobley would be “the narrative” for many, but added he couldn’t do anything about that.

What he could accomplish was responding from his last performance against the Cavaliers in Cleveland, when he had nine points, three assists and seven turnovers. Cunningham had just one turnover in 37 minutes and finished with that triple-double.

Detroit went from having 23 turnovers and a season-low 78 points in that 20-point loss to the Cavaliers on Nov. 12 to nine turnovers and a 10-point victory.

Cunningham was central to that turnover turnaround.

Asked about his one turnover, Cunningham smiled and said, “Yeah, I like that. I’m proud of that.”

It had been a good game — one for the Pistons to be proud of — on a night everything started out so bad.

Cunningham became the first Pistons rookie to record multiple triple-doubles in a season, and the 12th in NBA history with at least two triple-doubles in his first 40 games.

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.

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