(Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)

Early exit for Cade as Pistons fall to Phoenix

Cade Cunningham, perhaps on his way to a career game, instead was on his way to the showers.

“I’ve seen a lot worse to get ejected for than that,” Dwane Casey said after Cunningham was banished – for pointing. “They said Cade pointed at the guy that he dunked on or whatever. I didn’t see that part of it. I think he was pointing toward his teammates.”

Cunningham’s ejection probably didn’t cost the Pistons a win, which would have been their fifth straight at home, but it did suck the air out of a Little Caesars Arena crowd that had just “oohed” at one end for Devin Booker’s tip jam and “ahhed” 11 seconds later over Cunningham’s balletic dance around Cam Payne along the baseline and explosion into a reverse dunk over Jalen Smith. Cunningham punctuated the dunk, as his momentum carried him to the sideline opposite the Pistons bench, by pointing back in the direction of the basket – or the bench, take your pick.

Cunningham accepted culpability for getting T’d up but says his pointing wasn’t intended to be taunting at all.

“I had my people right behind the bench, so I went baseline to dunk the ball and he’s right in between me and my people,” Cunningham said. “I probably should’ve read that a little bit better. But I don’t really get into taunting too much. I realized the situation after he tech’d me up. I didn’t think I was going to get a tech, so I tried to holler at coach Monty (Williams of Phoenix) over there and let him know, good game.”

It was interpreted as taunting by the officiating crew and an automatic ejection for Cunningham, who’d picked up a first technical earlier in the third quarter for disagreeing with a foul incurred as he attempted to break up a lob pass to JaVale McGee. The No. 1 pick left with 21 points on 9 of 15 shooting with 4:24 left in the third quarter. Cunningham’s career high of 29 came six days earlier when the Pistons rallied from 22 points down to beat Utah. Josh Jackson was also ejected in the final minute when he and Phoenix’s Ish Wainwright were each assessed a technical, Jackson’s second of the game.

“Cade’s a big part of our team,” Cory Joseph said. “And Josh. So when things happen like that, obviously it’s unfortunate. Cade had it going. I don’t know exactly what happened on the play. I wasn’t able to watch it again. Definitely a big-time loss for both of those guys to go out of the game.”

Casey might have taken issue with the Cunningham and Jackson whistles, but his broader message to the Pistons is to build their resume before engaging officials in banter over calls.

“We’re not in position as a team to complain,” he said. “Let me be the bad guy to fight for us. As a young team, we shouldn’t get that reputation of complaining to the officials. And until we get to that level, we’ve got to button up and zip up and play our butts off.”

They did that for a delightfully entertaining first quarter that ended with Phoenix up 39-35 on the strength of 80 percent shooting. But the storm clouds were gathering. The Pistons aren’t likely to match the firepower a shootout demands against a team of Phoenix’s caliber. The Suns came in with an NBA-best 32-9 record and left remaining on pace to win 64 games.

“They’re very talented. They had it kind of going on all cylinders,” Joseph said. “They were getting it inside to the big fella and finishing. Everybody was hitting their shots. Devin was hitting everything.”

Booker, indeed, hit almost everything, including 9 of his first 10 shots on his way to 30 points in 30 minutes. Phoenix had six double-figures scorers including a pair of 20-point scorers off its bench, JaVale McGee and Payne. They combined to hit 17 of 22 shots. Phoenix finished at 58.6 percent shooting.

“They’re a championship-caliber team,” Casey said. “We know that. We’re not at that level. Our goal is to get there, but the way you get there is learn things from the mistakes you make.”

Cunningham got to his 21 points despite hitting only 1 of 3 3-point shots, doing his damage in the paint or the mid-range and largely by crafty manipulation of pick-and-roll opportunities.

“The game is slowing down for him,” Joseph said. “He’s a very smart player. He has size, uses his body well. He can shoot the ball, as well. He has all aspects. He can get to the paint and finish, shoot that jumper over smaller guys and he can shoot the three. He’s definitely going to see blitzes and double teams throughout his career. He’s learning as he goes and doing a hell of a job.”