Trickle-down effect of Cade’s debut: Intact second unit leads Pistons to first win

Cade Cunningham figures to have a direct impact on most everything the Pistons plan to do for their next generation of basketball, but it was his indirect impact that keyed the first Pistons win of the season in his NBA debut.

Cunningham scored two points and missed all five of his 3-point attempts, understandably rusty after missing a month with a sprained ankle and feeling his way in his first game action of any kind since Summer League.

“It was good. I felt like coming in, just being able to make some plays off the ball, get some rebounds – I feel I was solid defensively – and those are the points I really wanted to come out and prove to myself that my ankle was straight,” Cunningham said. “I got all the jitters out now and now I can just go play free.”

“Exactly what I thought. I knew it was going to be rust,” Casey said of the No. 1 pick’s first outing. “You can’t go a month and come out and expect to play the way you want to play. But I liked the effort, the intensity, the way he pushed the ball, moved the ball, tried to make the right decision.”

Beyond the box score, it was what Cunningham’s return meant for lineup balance that had the biggest impact on the outcome. With Cunningham joining the starting lineup, Casey had both his first and second units as envisioned intact for the first time and it was that bench – led by veterans Kelly Olynyk and Cory Joseph with plenty of help from Trey Lyles, Josh Jackson and Frank Jackson – that dominated in victory.

“The bench played well. I thought the bench had a sense of urgency when they came in the game,” Casey said after the 110-103 win broke a four-game losing streak to open the 2021-22 season. “Just getting that group back together was important for us. They’ve been disjointed just because of the injuries. They’re not a well-oiled machine yet, either, the way they were at the beginning of training camp.”

The bench combined for 59 points and put four players – Olynyk (18), Josh Jackson (13), Lyles (12) and Joseph (11) – in double figures, outscoring Orlando’s bench by 18 points. Olynyk added five rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocked shots. Joseph had six assists and two steals and spearheaded a defense that forced Orlando into turnovers – six in the third quarter alone – and miscues. Josh Jackson had two steals, two assists and a blocked shot.

The Pistons trailed 67-60 with five minutes left in the third quarter but went on a 15-0 run late in the quarter to lead by nine heading into the fourth. With Olynyk scoring and passing and Joseph running the offense and hounding the ball defensively, the run at one point was 28-6 to turn a seven-point deficit into a 15-point lead.

“They came in and took care of business,” Isaiah Stewart said. “Gave us energy and sparked it for us to go ahead and finish the game and go ahead and get the win.”

Casey eventually brought Jerami Grant and Saddiq Bey back but otherwise let his bench ride out the win. Killian Hayes played 22 minutes, Stewart 21 and Cunningham – who was on a minutes restriction of 25, Casey said – logged 19 minutes. Olynyk, Joseph and Josh Jackson all played more minutes than those three starters.

And it was the bench that got another subpar 3-point night turned around. The Pistons were 5 of 24 from the 3-point line midway through the third quarter when Orlando surged to a seven-point lead, then hit 9 of 19 the rest of the way. Triples from Joseph and Grant got the 15-0 run started and gave the Pistons the lead for good, then Josh Jackson added a third following an Orlando timeout. The Pistons bench hit 9 of 19 triples, the starters hit 5 of 24.

“It wasn’t our offense, it was our defense that helped us when we made the run and got us back in the game,” Casey said. “We’ve got to hang our hat on our defense. We got up 43 (triples), which is a good number for us and we still haven’t shot it the way we need to shoot it. We’re competing to the best of our ability, but we’ve just got to continue to work on our shooting and believe in our shooting.”

Cunningham was a 40 percent 3-point shooter at Oklahoma State and hit 50 percent from the arc in Summer League. There’s not much doubt he’ll eventually be a big factor in helping the Pistons pull out of last place in 3-point efficiency – for his passing as much as his shooting.

“I just missed ’em,” Cunningham said of his shooting in his debut. “I’m confident in my shot. A couple felt really good, a couple were off by a lot more than I wanted them to be. You’ve got to keep shooting. More than anything, I was happy with my confidence. It felt like it was just another game of basketball for me, which is the main thing I’m happy about.”

Cunningham won over the crowd early, grabbing six first-quarter rebounds and diving on the floor once and scrapping hard to pull the ball away and win a possession for the Pistons. He’s also clearly won over his teammates, who don’t see a rookie who carries himself with a sense of entitlement.

“Passing, his grit, that chip on his shoulder,” Stewart said when asked his impressions of Cunningham. “One thing he didn’t do is let the game affect him. He knows he’s a big-time player. He knows those shots are going to drop. He didn’t even sweat his shots not going in.”

There probably aren’t going to be a lot of nights for however long Cunningham’s career lasts where he scores two points and misses seven times more shots than he makes. But it came in a Pistons win and that wasn’t lost on Cunningham, either.

“I was so anxious for game time today just because there’s been so many games I’ve been part of the warmup and then have to sit,” he said. “This is my first time going through the whole process, which was a lot of fun. It was a good team win. It was a good day today.”