How Cade Cunningham’s early foul trouble became Detroit Pistons’ crunch-time problem

Detroit Free Press

With 7:30 to play in the fourth quarter Saturday, Dwane Casey faced with a dilemma — keep Cade Cunningham in the game, or bench him?

Cunningham, the Detroit Pistons‘ most productive scorer all game, had picked up his fifth foul after swatting Marcus Smart to prevent a Boston Celtics fastbreak following a turnover. The coaching staff decided to bench Cunningham with the game tied at 88 points. If they could survive a few minutes without Cunningham, they’d still have a chance to win. 

But Smart knocked down both free throws, and the Celtics went on a 12-2 run following Cunningham’s substitution to build a 100-90 lead and pull away with a 113-104 victory. Cunningham re-entered the game with 5:11 to play and scored or assisted Detroit’s next nine points, but it wasn’t enough against a hot Boston team that won its 11th game in 12 tries. 

Early foul trouble has become a recurring issue for Cunningham, and it potentially cost the Pistons their second win in two weeks over the Celtics. He was Detroit’s best player on Saturday, finishing with 25 points and seven rebounds. But foul trouble limited him to just 27 minutes, including 6 minutes and 30 seconds of action in the final period. 

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“I just told Cade we need him in the game,” Casey said after the loss. “We need him in the game. We don’t need cheap fouls, just reaching and fouling just to be fouling. He’ll learn, because we need his offense, we need his playmaking. We don’t need him sitting next to the coaches.

“It’s nothing I haven’t told him, and he understands they’re going to go at him, try to get him in foul trouble. He’s gotta play with his hands back, feet and chest and make them score over his length. When he reaches up he’s probably close to 6-11, 6-10. Make him shoot over his length more than anything else, and 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. You’ve gotta be disciplined in those situations.”

Saturday was the fourth time in Cunningham’s last six games he picked up two fouls in the first quarter. He did so in back-to-back games against the Celtics and Washington Wizards last week, and once again against the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 1. Many of the whistles have been reach-in fouls that can be avoided with better discipline.

“Kinda killing myself with those fouls more than anything,” Cunningham said. “I just gotta be better about that, be smarter once I get one. Just being smarter about it, not picking up more.” 

After benching Cunningham early in the season because of foul trouble, Casey’s staff has let him play through it this month. Cunningham picked up his second foul less than four minutes into the game on Saturday, but didn’t sub out until the 5:10 mark of the quarter.

Against the Celtics on Feb. 16, Cunningham picked up two fouls within the opening minute of the game but didn’t check out until there was 4:18  remaining in the first quarter. In both instances, Cunningham didn’t pick up another foul in the quarter.

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While it’s a good sign that Cunningham has been able to avoid letting fouls continue to stack after picking up early ones, the challenge for him moving forward is to avoid getting into foul trouble altogether. Cunningham is an unusually polished rookie, but it’s one of the few glaring areas he can improve in.

“We hope you don’t get those two quick ones, but then there comes a point throughout the season he’s gotta learn to play with fouls,” Casey said. “He didn’t, he got another quick one. He’s gotta learn that. That’s part of his growth and discipline. Teams are going to try and draw fouls, try to duck in on him on the weakside. Gotta play with your feet and chest and not try to grab and hold. All those things he’ll learn. We trust him, he’s our future. We gotta make sure he’s gotta learn how to play, first of all, not to get those cheap fouls, and then to play with fouls.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter

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