Three quick observations from Friday night’s 96-90 loss to the Brooklyn Nets at Little Caesars Arena
FRIDAY NIGHT FIGHT – Friday’s game at Little Caesars Arena was following the same script as Thursday’s – the Pistons battling an Eastern Conference favorite on even terms for the first half, then stumbling out of the blocks at halftime to go down by double digits. But the Pistons threw in a surprise twist, this time coming back from a 16-point deficit – the Nets outscored them 39-23 in the third quarter to account for all of it – to pull within two points with four minutes to play. They had chances to take the lead twice but 3-pointers from Cade Cunningham and Cory Joseph missed each time and Kevin Durant responded with baskets at the other end. With less than a minute left, Saddiq Bey was called for an offensive foul with the Pistons down three. Durant scored again – after his first attempt was rebounded by Blake Griffin – to put the Nets ahead by five with 12.9 seconds to play. Griffin and Isaiah Stewart, ejected from a game last season after a skirmish with Griffin, got into it again and were assessed double technical fouls with three minutes left. Just as happened Thursday, the opening minutes of the third quarter dug a hole the Pistons didn’t appear to have the firepower to escape. Brooklyn scored the first eight points of the third quarter to snap a 39-all halftime tie. The Pistons hit 4 of 5 threes to open the quarter but allowed the Nets to match their 39-point first half in a 39-point third quarter to take their biggest lead. Dwane Casey altered his rotation pattern a bit to keep players in shorter stints. Bey and Jerami Grant, both of whom have played all or most of every first quarter, both came out earlier than usual this time. Grant, after scoring 27 points against Philadelphia, looked sapped on the back to back, going 0 of 9 and finishing with five points and four rebounds.
MISSING PIECE – The Brooklyn Nets weren’t the only team playing without its preferred starting point guard, Kyrie Irving. The Pistons played without Killian Hayes, who suffered a thumb injury in Thursday’s loss to Philadelphia. He tested the thumb before the game, Dwane Casey said, and wasn’t ruled out until about an hour before tipoff. Taking Hayes’ spot in the starting lineup: Josh Jackson. Casey has generally opted to keep his second unit intact, but this time – instead of elevating a player outside the rotation, Hamidou Diallo or Saben Lee, perhaps – he moved Josh Jackson into the lineup. Interestingly, that also left Cunningham as the sole point guard. The player elevated into the rotation to plug Jackson’s hole in the second unit, interestingly, wasn’t Lee or Diallo but Rodney McGruder. McGruder played four first-half minutes but didn’t appear after halftime when Casey went to a nine-man rotation.
CADE WATCH – Cade Cunningham has grown noticeably more comfortable with each passing game. With Killian Hayes out and more of the ballhandling burden shifting to Cunningham, he displayed his court vision early and often against Brooklyn, zipping skip passes and finding open shooters off of dribble penetration several times. He was a big part of the comeback, scoring eight of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of big triples, the second with 2:15 left to pull the Pistons within a point. Cunningham added four rebounds and two assists in 30 minutes while playing his first NBA back to back. Cunningham scored nine points in his first 10-minute stint by hitting a triple and then scoring on effective drives against first James Harden and then Kevin Durant, beating him with a slick hesitation move. On both layups, Cunningham showed his feel by subtly dipping a shoulder into the chests of Harden and Durant – not enough to warrant a foul, but enough to create separation to get the layup off. Another Cunningham triple was wiped out when it was ruled he stepped on the sideline. Cunningham picked up three fouls in the first half to limit him to 14 minutes, then added a fourth 14 seconds into the third quarter, and it appeared he was gassed at times – a function of the fact Cunningham returned only a week ago following a month-long absence due to an ankle injury suffered in the first days of training camp.