Cade Cunningham’s injury finally forced him to the sideline, while Killian Hayes forced his way back into the starting lineup based on his aggressive and efficient play of late.
Both started at guard Friday night for the Pistons in a 110-101 win over the Thunder in Oklahoma City, but Detroit had Frank Jackson starting in the second-half backcourt with Hayes.
Hayes had a monster game with a career-high 26 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, five steals and two blocked shots. Jackson also came up big with 26 points – one shy of his season high.
“I’m really proud of Killian Hayes,” said Pistons coach Dwane Casey. “He showed a lot of leadership.”
Rookie forward Isaiah Livers, getting his first start with Marvin Bagley III out on a “day to day” basis with a hip flexor, had a career-high 17 points, making 4-of-5 3-pointers, and added 11 rebounds and three assists.
“It’s fun watching him grow as a young player,” said Casey. “It’s fun watching him make decisions and shoot the ball. He turned down probably two or three threes that he could’ve made. Another young man that is getting condition, just coming back from (a concussion), and it’s good to see.”
He said Jackson, who returned last Friday (March 25) after missing 11 consecutive and 16 total games with a bilateral spine spasm injury, is regaining his rhythm.
“He’s just offense off the bench – that’s the most important thing with him,” said Casey. “For him, getting his confidence back, getting his conditioning back, have been an issue with him since he was out with his back. So, tonight I felt like he had his energy, had his strength and conditioning in the game tonight. He had 32 minutes, and that’s a lot for him just coming back from an injury.”
There are few Pistons not nursing some kind of injury at this point in the season – with just four games remaining.
Cunningham had managed to score 34 points Tuesday night in Brooklyn after bruising his tailbone in the first quarter, and then tallied 27 points in Thursday night’s home upset of the Philadelphia 76ers to add major fuel to the fire of his NBA Rookie of the Year campaign.
He averaged 22.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists in March.
However, he was done against the Thunder after playing 7:42 and scoring two points on 1-for-4 shooting with two turnovers and zero assists. It wasn’t the homecoming Cunningham – whom the Pistons drafted No. 1 overall out of Oklahoma State – had hoped for with so many familiar faces in the crowd in OKC.
Detroit coach Dwane Casey said Thursday after watching Cunningham lead the way to an impressive win over the Sixers, “Cade is not 100 percent. I thought he played through a lot of pain in his back.”
The pain, soreness and lack of full flexibility finally got to the gritty, 6-foot-7 guard.
After the game, Casey said Cunningham and forward Saddiq Bey (hip), who played just 6:09 along with fellow starter Isaiah Stewart, both would’ve played had Detroit (22-56) been pursuing a playoff berth against the Thunder (22-55).
Cunningham was all smiles afterward and said of playing again in Oklahoma: “A lot of love in there. We got a win. I was really proud to see how our whole team stepped up, top to bottom.”
Forward Jamorko Pickett (Georgetown), called up from the G League’s Motor City Cruise, had career-highs of 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists in his 11th NBA game.
Guard Saben Lee (Vanderbilt) had a career-high 12 assists with 11 points.
Forward Braxton Key (Virginia) continued contributing on his 10-day contract with a career-high 10 points in his seventh NBA game.
Detroit got an amazing 60 points off the bench, but Hayes still was the story in this one.
He had averaged 11.5 points, 2.5 assists and 3.5 steals in the last two games, and Casey opted to return him to the starting lineup. Cory Joseph (8.0 points, 3.1 assists, 2.7 rebounds) had replaced Hayes in the starting lineup Jan. 19 because Casey wanted a more experienced guard teaming up with Cunningham.
However, Hayes — whom Casey says has “uncanny” court vision –responded well to the challenge and has been on a productive roll off the bench.
Casey assessed Hayes’ recent play: “He’s got that swagger about him, the physicality. That’s the kind of bravado and confidence a point guard in this league has go to play with.
“Since the All-Star break, he came back with a different approach, a different demeanor. The last thing to come is (3-point) shooting. Everything else, he’s doing with confidence.”
Hayes explained his adjustment: “Being in the gym more, working on my game and being really attentive to everything I do…I’m just being more aggressive. I know I can create good things in the paint.”
Casey also stressed to Hayes that he should be more physical at a solid 6-foot-5 and 216 points, and Hayes said he is “using my body more” by attacking the basket.
Hayes made 12-of-25 (.480) from the field while going 2-for-9 (.222) on 3-pointers.
The Thunder were led by guard Theo Maledon (28 points, six assists and six rebounds), while forward Jaylen Hoard had 20 rebounds with 11 points to lead his team to a 54-44 rebounding edge.
However, after Detroit’s 17-0 run in the second quarter — fueled mostly by Hayes, Jackson and Pickett – the Pistons had the momentum needed for a second consecutive win. Next up are the Pacers Sunday in Indianapolis.
“It was really satisfying to see the guys grow today,” said Casey.
Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.
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