Three quick observations from Tuesday night’s 110-105 loss to the Denver Nuggets at Little Caesars Arena
STAR VS. STAR – Nikola Jokic is the reigning MVP, has a compelling case to repeat and used the game’s first 10 minutes to make that case to the Little Caesars Arena crowd. They probably would have cast their ballots for Cade Cunningham instead. The once and future (?) MVPs put together brilliant first quarters on their way to superb games, one that probably does more for Cunningham’s Rookie of the Year consideration than Jokic’s repeat MVP bid. Cunningham established a new career high with 34 points while also contributing eight rebounds, eight assists, two steals and four blocked shots. Cunningham missed his first shot of the game, a paint jumper that rimmed out, but then hit his next five – including three from the 3-point arc, the last one a nasty crossover, step-back number that put Jokic on skates – and checked out with a minute left in the quarter and 13 points, two rebounds and three assists on his stat line. He added 10 more points in the third quarter and had nine in the fourth. Jokic put up 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists in 10 minutes of the first quarter on his way to 28 points, 21 rebounds and nine assists. It was the sixth game this season in which Cunningham made at least five 3-point shots, giving the most such games in NBA history through the first 38 career games. Denver finished with a 56-36 rebounding edge, the Pistons with a whopping 38-7 advantage in points off turnovers.
WELCOME BACK – Frank Jackson returned after missing nearly four weeks, first with an ankle injury, then entering health and safety protocols and more recently in reconditioning from the illness. Jackson had solidified himself as the scoring anchor of the bench unit when he went down on Dec. 29, averaging 10.7 points in 22 minutes a game and giving the Pistons the type of volume 3-point shooting that commands a defense’s attention. Jackson checked in for Cade Cunningham with a minute left in the first quarter and looked like he’d not missed a day, draining a 3-pointer from the right wing on his first touch. He missed his four other triples, but Jackson still managed 11 points on 5 of 11 shooting in 14 minutes. With Jackson back, the second unit consisted of Killian Hayes, Trey Lyles, Rodney McGruder, Josh Jackson and Frank Jackson. Josh Jackson was tossed in the second quarter, though, when he picked up two technical fouls. The second came after he’s been taken out of the game and was seated on the Pistons bench.
FOULS APLENTY – The Pistons have seen a sudden spike in foul issues, averaging nearly 24.5 a game over their past six and coming off a season-high 29 in Sunday’s loss at Denver. They again had issues in Tuesday’s return match, picking up 14 in the first half when three players – Cory Joseph, Isaiah Stewart and Cade Cunningham – all picked up three and Denver outscored the Pistons 17-8 at the line on 20 attempts. The Pistons finished with 25 fouls and Denver hit 26 of 31 free throws. The Pistons then put Denver in the bonus four minutes into the third quarter, but they picked up just one foul in the fourth quarter until fouling intentionally three times in the final 15 seconds. The Pistons, who average 21.2 fouls a game, haven’t had a game with fewer than 20 fouls since they were called for 14 in a Jan. 6 game at Memphis. Dwane Casey’s Toronto teams were known for physical play and that’s the tone he’s trying to establish with the Pistons, too, and young teams need to find their equilibrium in playing that style while not picking up cheap fouls. “We’re doing some unnecessary fouling,” Casey said before Tuesday’s game. “We’re coming down (with arms) when we should be going up vertical. The cheap ones, the ones we can control, that and our turnovers, that’s breaking our back.” Opponents averaged 29 foul shots over the previous six games.