Progress for the Pistons from this point forward is going to be impossible to separate from progress for Cade Cunningham.
Cunningham was brilliant when he was on the floor for a marvelously contested game that saw 21 lead changes and no margin of more than six points until … well, until Cunningham wasn’t on the floor at a crucial juncture.
And for all there was to inspire optimism for the future to come from Saturday’s 113-104 loss before a raucous matinee crowd at Little Caesars Arena – and there was plenty – the essence of the outcome was the rookie’s learning curve on how to avoid foul trouble still has some bend to it coming.
“I’m kind of killing myself with those fouls more than anything,” he said. “I’ve just got to be better about that, be smarter. Once I get one, just being smarter about not picking up more.”
Cunningham picked up a foul 16 seconds into the game and another with 8:27 left in the first quarter. His third, coming in the second quarter, limited him to nine first-half minutes. His fourth came two minutes into the second half, a push-off trying to shake loose for an in-bounds pass.
The fifth, though. The fifth was a killer. It came with the game tied at 88 and 7:30 to play – 75 feet from the Boston basket. An errant Killian Hayes pass that produced a turnover prompted it, Cunningham trying to prevent a Boston transition scoring chance. But the risk-reward ratio – given the circumstances – screamed for him to avoid that gamble like it was radioactive.
He's not even really sure what he did to earn the foul. “I wish you all could interview those guys,” he said softly. “I don’t know.”
“I just told Cade we need him in the game,” Dwane Casey said, then once more for emphasis. “We need him in the game. We don’t need cheap fouls, reaching fouls and fouling just to be fouling. He’ll learn. We need his offense. We need his playmaking. We don’t need him sitting over there next to the coaches.”
Boston’s only loss in its last 12 games was to the Pistons, a 112-111 decision on the eve of the All-Star break 11 days ago. Cunningham put his mark on that one with 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, and he was even more of a handful for the Celtics in the rematch. Despite making only 1 of 6 from the 3-point line – the Pistons were 7 of 27 – Cunningham finished with 25 points on 11 of 19 shooting, making 10 of 13 inside the line. He and Isaiah Stewart, whose progress over the past several weeks is among the reasons for Casey’s optimism, operated seamlessly on pick and rolls. He found newly acquired Marvin Bagley III, who scored 14 points in 18 minutes before leaving with an ankle injury, for a lob. He drained the mid-range jump shots Boston practically conceded with bloodless confidence.
Casey and his staff briefly debated leaving Cunningham ride it out for all he meant to their success.
“There was so much time left,” Casey said. “He was rolling, so that’s always tough. We went back and forth. By the time he got back, they hit a couple of threes and opened it up. We had to call a timeout. We definitely didn’t want him to go out with eight minutes to go.”
Two Boston free throws, a Pistons turnover and a Peyton Pritchard driving layup gave Boston a four-point lead and prompted the first Pistons timeout 31 seconds after Cunningham sat. A missed Cory Joseph layup was answered by a Jaylen Brown three for a seven-point lead, the biggest of the game to that point. Jerami Grant came back with a layup, but then Boston got an Al Horford jump shot and a Jayson Tatum second-chance three around a Saddiq Bey miss for a 10-point lead. Casey burned another timeout and got Cunningham back in the game.
He sat for 2:19 and the Pistons were outscored 12-2. Only one Pistons player had a positive plus/minus number against Boston: Cunningham was plus five.
“Just a bad spot at the wrong time,” Cory Joseph said about losing Cunningham. “But a couple of those, when you find yourself in foul trouble and you’re in that position, especially a guy of his caliber that we need on the court, just kind of put your hands up and make sure you don’t foul there. He’s getting better every game. He knows that.”
If he hits one or two more triples to be more on par with his norm and if he plays another six or eight minutes without fouls hanging over his head, Cunningham probably has a career day. And the Pistons quite possibly get their second win of the month over the NBA’s hottest team.
That’s the link between how Cade Cunningham goes and how the Pistons fare. It’s going to be that way for as far out into the future as you dare to imagine.