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Cade Cunningham gets win 1st in budding rivalry with Jalen Green

Forever linked as the top two picks in the 2021 draft, Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green met for the first time as pros Wednesday.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

Jalen Green outscored Cade Cunningham 23-20, but the Pistons got the win on Wednesday night.

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HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets laid down the hashtag #LightTheFuse on Twitter in hyping Wednesday’s clash between top picks Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green, and even both coaches’ best pregame efforts failed to quell anticipation for this explosion of young promise.

“I mentioned it this morning that everybody wants to make it Cade [Cunningham] versus [Jalen] Green,” Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey said before the game. “It’s the Pistons versus the Rockets, and if we do anything other than that, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.”

Jerami Grant heard the message in reeling off a game-high 35 points, including 21 in the third quarter, to lead Detroit’s 112-104 win over the Houston Rockets. But let’s be honest here: top pick Cunningham, 20, and No. 2 selection Green, 19, walked off the floor at the Toyota Center as the brightest stars for a pair of rebuilding franchises, having faced off for the first time in the regular season.

Keep in mind the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the same Draft have both gone on to become NBA All-Stars at some point on 18 occasions in league annals, but just twice since 2000: Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell in 2015, and Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram in 2016.

It’s too early to know whether Cunningham and Green will track a similar trajectory, but their first regular-season duel provided plenty of promise. Cunningham shook off a slow start and early foul trouble to drop a career-high 20 points, hitting 4-of-8 from deep with four turnovers to finish as Detroit’s second-leading scorer. Not even four minutes into the game, Cunningham committed his second foul, which sent Green to the line for a pair of free throws.

“I didn’t like that I fouled and took myself out of it so early,” Cunningham said. “I should have just been a little bit smarter in those situations.”

Green, meanwhile, racked up a team-high 23 points on the strength of a monster third quarter, in which he scored 12 points on 4-of-7 from the field and 2-of-3 from 3-point range. Green also provided the highlight moment of this budding rivalry with 3:45 left in the third quarter, when he zoomed past Cunningham for a two-handed jam that tied the score at 73.

Cade Cunningham went off for 20 points in Detroit's win against Houston.

Green shouted something in Cunningham’s direction after the dunk, resulting in a technical foul.

“It happened, it’s basketball,” said Green, wearing a black Yao Ming t-shirt at his postgame news conference. “I don’t remember exactly what I said. It was just the intensity of the game. I was getting fired up, just trying to get a dub, that’s all.”

Green failed in that endeavor, and never scored again after the highlight-reel dunk. But Green’s strong third-quarter performance helped to keep Houston within striking distance headed into the final frame.

“I love it when he’s aggressive like that,” Rockets forward Christian Wood said of Green. “When he’s in attack mode like that, he’s tough to guard. He needs to be like that every game because he’s one of our go-to guys.”

Cunningham, meanwhile, would quickly shrug off the dunk, settle in and make key plays down the stretch with the game on the line. A native of Arlington, Texas, Cunningham admitted to packing the stands at the Toyota Center with plenty of family and friends.

Asked how he handles trash talk (such as what transpired with Green), Cunningham said: “It depends on what they’re saying. I’ll talk, too. Nothing I heard tonight held any weight. It was all for the cameras.”

Regardless, Houston chewed through a 14-point deficit, with Eric Gordon cutting Detroit’s edge to one with just 2:30 left to play on a stepback 3-pointer. From there, Cunningham scored on a driving layup, grabbed two boards and dished an assist down the stretch in addition to committing a turnover on an ill-advised wraparound pass.

It’s important to note that Cunningham was playing in just his fifth NBA game after missing time with an ankle injury.

“Each game I’m feeling a little bit more pep in my step, I’m feeling a little bit more comfortable,” Cunningham said. “That’s all I can ask for. I want to get better each and every game, try to be consistent. I don’t want to be up some days and then way down some other games.”

Going back to his NBA debut against Orlando on Oct. 30, Cunningham has shown gradual improvement in nearly every facet. Wednesday’s win over Houston served as something of a crescendo. Cunningham notched career highs against the Rockets in points and field goals made, as well as 3-point field goals made and steals (two).

After hitting just 1-of-21 from 3-point range in his first three games, Cunningham is now 7-of-15 from deep over his last two outings.

“It’s what we saw in college,” Casey said. “When he was at Oklahoma State, he did a good job of commanding the ball and it seemed like the bigger the moment, the better he played. That’s kind of showing true right now.”

Green’s star power is quite apparent, too, as he’s scored 20 points or more in three of Houston’s 11 games, including a 30-point night last month against the Boston Celtics. In fact, Green is just the third rookie after Ja Morant and Trae Young to have produced a 30-point game within his first three outings since 2000-01.

Ultimately, though, both the Rockets — tied for their worst record through 11 games in team history — and the Pistons — 2-8 even after Wednesday’s win — remain mired in similar situations: teams with young rosters and young prospects tabbed as foundational pieces. Detroit entered the matchup Wednesday with the NBA’s third-youngest roster by average age (24 years, 212 days), while Houston drafted four players in 2021 — Green, Alperen Sengun, Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher – that were 19 years old entering 2021-22.

Interestingly, Casey watched the college showdown Tuesday night between Duke and Kentucky, and marveled at the idea that many of his Pistons are the same age as some of the players he saw. Casey views the Rockets similarly, having watched them several times this season on NBA League Pass.

“We have some of the same things: top Draft picks, young players,” Casey said. “So, we both have them and we’re both in the same stages of our rebuild situations. You don’t get the rewards right away, but you can see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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