Charlotte, N.C. — Cade Cunningham has been getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar. It’s a hard temptation to break, with the way Cunningham plays defense and the challenges that he faces on a game-to-game basis.
Cunningham generally is matched up against one of the opposing team’s better offensive wings, so it’s natural to want to be up for the challenge. The issue is that the situations are getting Cunningham into foul trouble, and most of the fouls are cheap ones.
In Saturday’s loss to the Celtics, he played just 27 minutes, and the foul trouble kept him on the bench during a critical stretch of the game in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics made their big run and put the game away.
“I’m killing myself with those fouls more anything,” Cunningham said Saturday. “I’ve just got to be better about that, be smarter. Once I get one, just being smart about it, and not picking up more.”
Defending the Celtics and their talented wings was a challenge. Cunningham picked up his first foul just 16 seconds into the game, and he got his second foul from contact on Jaylen Brown, at 8:27 of the first period. That’s where the uneasiness started.
Coach Dwane Casey kept Cunningham in the game, as he’s been trying to help the rookie learn to play through foul trouble. Cunningham got his third foul at 3:55 of the second quarter, and the issues continued.
“He understands that they’re going to go at him, trying to get him in foul trouble. He’s got to play with his hands back, with his feet and chest, and make them score over his length,” Casey said. “(He needs to avoid) reaching and fouling or trying to block a shot because we need him in the game. We want him to have the challenge of guarding the other team’s best player, and you’ve got to be disciplined in those situations.”
There’s a fine line between playing tough defense and ending up on the bench because the fouls pile up quickly when guarding top-level offensive players. Cunningham still is figuring that part out, but in Saturday’s game, playing without their leading scorer in the game was tough for their comeback effort.
As Cunningham tries to dial it back a little, he’ll keep working on finding the right level of aggressiveness, especially early in games.
“Maybe defensively with steals and stuff, but I don’t try to think about it too hard,” Cunningham said. “I try to still defend physically and make guys feel pressure on the ball. I think just the reach-ins and things like that is what’s really been hurting me.”
Hamidou Diallo plays with emotion. All the time. It’s kind of the thing that fuels his high-energy activity and keeps him going.
The issue with his ejection in Saturday’s game. Because he made contact with an official is that it wasn’t a clear-cut problem. Yes, Diallo made contact with the official, Suyash Mehta, but in the context of the game, it wasn’t just a clear shove because Diallo was angry with the official. That seemed to be the explanation that was given for the decision of the ejection and technical foul.
The NBA fined Diallo $20,000 on Sunday after reviewing the incident, so on several levels, there seems to be a consensus of what it was.
Diallo is developing into one of the Pistons’ key pieces, not just off the bench, but on the roster. His energy makes the second unit go, and when he’s able to play at that level, he’s a big asset on both ends of the court.
Marvin Bagley III is bringing a different dynamic to the team, and though he has a sprained left ankle, he’s on track to be a key piece for the remainder of the season. He’s brought a lob threat to the frontcourt and his presence in the paint gives them another option that they didn’t quite have earlier in the season.