Monday isn’t anybody’s favorite day of the week, but the Pistons might just petition the NBA to play all their games on Monday.
One week after bloodying the nose of the reigning NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, the Pistons on this particular Monday spotted the team with the NBA’s best record last season, Utah, a 22-point lead only to come back for a 126-116 win. If you want to decide the season’s best win, flip a coin between those two.
“It’s definitely up there,” Saddiq Bey, who hit 5 of 7 from the 3-point arc on his way to 29 points, said of where the comeback win ranks for a team that’s suddenly won four of six games. “We cut it to 13 at halftime. We knew we had a chance in the second half. Kept running, kept playing fast, kept trusting each other and down the stretch everybody stepped up.”
Nobody more so than rookie Cade Cunningham, who appeared headed for a forgettable night when he missed his first five shots. He scored 24 of his 29 points after halftime, 18 in a masterful third quarter, and orchestrated the offense beautifully when he returned for the final eight minutes.
“You have to have a short memory when it comes to things like that,” said Rex Kalamian, who sat in for Dwane Casey after the Pistons coach became the 14th NBA head coach this season to enter the league’s health and safety protocols. “You have to be able to say 0 for 4, make your next four and you’re 4 for 8. You have to have that type of confidence and Cade has that type of confidence.”
Cunningham hit a few shots late in the first half when the Pistons found their footing defensively, cutting their deficit to 13 with a 16-7 closing run, and Kalamian and his staff wanted to put the ball in his hands early in the second half.
“We talked about how he’s feeling better about his game – let’s try to double down and give him the first few plays in pick and roll and let him attack to start the third,” Kalamian said. “I’m really proud of his game tonight.”
Behind Cunningham’s brilliant second half, the Pistons stacked a 38-point fourth quarter atop a 40-point third quarter. It was the highest-scoring third and fourth quarters of the Pistons season and the 78 points in the second half topped their previous best by 15.
“I can’t say enough good things about how they stuck to it,” Kalamian said. “How they showed resilience throughout the game. Scoring 40 in the third and 38 in the fourth, putting back-to-back quarters like that together, is pretty cool for them.”
Cunningham hit 10 of 12 shots after the 0 of 5 start. He hit 5 of 9 from three for the game and all four of his free throws. He also picked up eight assists. The Pistons trailed 96-95 when Kalamian sent Cunningham back into the game with 8:01 to play. A Josh Jackson layup gave the Pistons the lead, then Cunningham set up a Cory Joseph three and followed with one of his own to cap an 8-0 run. The Pistons never trailed again. Cunningham’s 29 points were a career high. It was the fourth game this season in which Cunningham has put up 25 points or better with five assists or more; all other rookies have two such games.
“I wouldn’t say anything flipped for me,” Cunningham said. “I just wanted to stay in the same mindset I was in. First quarter, I missed some good looks. They all felt good, so I didn’t really lose any confidence in how the game was going to go for me. Going into the second half, I wanted to add a little extra oomph to my game and I’m glad the way it turned out.”
Cunningham got help up and down the lineup, but in particular from Bey and Cory Joseph. The veteran guard came off the bench to score 16 points and hit all four of his 3-point attempts, three in the fourth quarter, to be part of the closing unit along with Bey, Cunningham and Josh Jackson, who had 11 points and six rebounds. Trey Lyles scored 14 off the bench. The 19 threes (in 37 attempts) were a season high and the Pistons reached 30 assists for the third time this season, all win.
“We talk about what we see out there, what’s working for us and how we can play off each other and make plays for the team,” Bey said of Cunningham, who was shadowed most of the night by Utah defensive stopper Royce O’Neale. “It’s good to see his growth. From the beginning of the season to now, we’re more of a collective unit and know each other at a better level.”
The win goes on Casey’s record, but Kalamian will treasure a keepsake he was gifted in a joyous postgame locker room.
“Very satisfying,” he said. “I said it’s the first time I’ve ever gotten the game ball in 28 years. It’s pretty cool. I’m very happy to get the win for the players, especially.”
They could have just as easily awarded it to Cunningham. Then again, he’s 20 – and chances are his trophy case is going to be groaning from the weight of game balls by the time he’s finished.
“Super happy for him,” Cunningham said. “Glad we got to do that for him. He means a lot to his team, brings a lot of energy for us. To be able to get his first win meant a lot to us, too.”