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Cade’s clutch plays lift fatigued Pistons to another win

Five games in seven nights got to Cade Cunningham’s legs, but it wasn’t quite enough to snuff out what Dwane Casey calls his “it” factor.

The Pistons rode the wave of Thursday’s emotional win at Toronto in Friday’s early going, hitting 9 of 10 from the 3-point arc and sprinting to a 15-point lead over Indiana by the midway point of the second quarter. They had their highest-scoring first quarter of the season, 39 points, and were at 59 with seven minutes left in the first half when the wall hit back.

But Cunningham summoned his special powers in the last 2:36 with five points and a huge assist. His 3-pointer started a 12-1 closing run to finish, his set-up to Saddiq Bey tied the game at 105 with 1:40 to go and his knifing layup with 1:09 to play put the Pistons ahead for good. Oh, yeah, he also grabbed four defensive rebounds in that stretch.

“He can do a lot of great things out there on the court to help us win,” newcomer Marvin Bagley III said after the 111-106 win. “It’s great to see. I’m happy he was able to make those big plays down the stretch when we needed it.”

Cunningham finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and three assists and Bey with 25 points, hitting 6 of 8 from three. 

“The biggest play of the game, (Cunningham) had just hit a three, he was driving, he could’ve shot it but he trusted the pass and hit Saddiq in the corner for a game-tying three,” Dwane Casey said.

Bey also picked up a nickname along the way, courtesy of Isaiah Stewart, one he announced with a sheepish grin.

“I call him Big Shot,” Stewart said after contributing eight points and 13 rebounds to the win. “I know they’ll say it’s already taken here, but Saddiq’s hit some big shots. He’s never nervous. Whenever we’re down by three or something and he shoots, I’m under there to get the rebound but I’m almost sure it’s going in.”

The Pistons have become a formidable team since Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk returned from length injury absences and recovered from simultaneous bouts with COVID-19. Their experience, size and scoring punch has balanced Casey’s units and allowed younger teammates to assume more manageable responsibilities. The fact Casey’s steady hand created a stable environment even as the Pistons were overmatched meant the mounting losses didn’t lead to overwhelming dejection.

Now they’re reaping the benefits of staying with a process that offered little in the way of reward for four months.

“Just the way we’re together right now,” Stewart said. “You could just sense the energy, how everything has shifted for us right now – the joy. You guys see the difference, but there’s definitely been a change.”

Bagley would have never known he was coming to a 12-43 team when he arrived from Sacramento at the trade deadline. He returned to the lineup after missing the last three games with a sprained ankle and contributed 18 points and eight rebounds in 22 minutes.

“When I first got here, the energy was good,” he said. “You can feel it. You can feel how everybody’s connecting. On the road, team dinners, coming together. It’s a great feeling. I’m happy to be a part of it.”

The Pistons get a rare weekend off before getting back to it on Monday with 18 games left on the schedule over the final 35 days. Given their trajectory now, they’re embracing that five-week stretch for the opportunity it provides Bagley to get fully assimilated and for the young core revolving around Cunningham, Bey and Jerami Grant to continue fostering a growing synergy. Cunningham, especially, is finding his groove as the orchestrator of an offense that’s suddenly functioning at several levels above where it was even a month ago.

“Great player,” Bagley said of his new teammate. “I think everybody knows that. You can see how he plays the game at his pace. He’s a beast out there.”