Cade Cunningham finally had his coming-out party. The Detroit Pistons rookie scored a career-high 34 points to go with 8 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 blocks. The only other rookie to reach those thresholds was some guy named Michael Jordan. Ever heard of him?
Unfortunately, that herculean effort wasn’t enough as Detroit fell to the Denver Nuggets 110-105. The reasons for the loss were a bunch of familiar culprits — disparities at the free-throw line, rebounding and points in the paint.
The Nuggets shot 32 free throws and were a +16 at the charity stripe, had a 56-36 rebounding advantage and edged the Pistons in the paint 56-48. Nikola Jokic certainly helped the Nuggets gain that edge. He had 28 points, 21 rebounds, 9 assists and got to the free-throw line seven times (and made all seven, of course).
The most disheartening thing if you’re a Detroit Pistons fan is that free-throw disparity. Detroit could not seem to buy a whistle despite being on its home floor, and of those 34 points Cunningham scored exactly zero came at the free-throw line.
It’s not because Cunnigham was bashful or only camping out at the 3-point line. He was aggressively driving into the lane and effectively able to get around and through defenders all night. There was certainly plenty of contact. Just never any actual whistles.
It’s been an issue for Cunningham all season, who is only averaging 2.1 free-throw attempts per game.
So how was Detroit able to stay in this one? The Cunningham heroics, obviously, but beyond that Denver played some really sloppy basketball, especially when Jokic was on the bench. The Nuggets committed 25 turnovers including six from backup big man DeMarcus Cousins.
The Pistons trotted out the same starting lineup as the previous game against the Nuggets with Cory Joseph playing off guard and Killian Hayes coming off the bench. The move really benefited Hayes, for this game anyway, because he had the ball in his hands much more as the reserve point guard and got to run the offense and dictate the action.
He still struggles to score (2-of-8 shooting including some no-chancers in the paint), but he also had 8 assists and some electric passes and committed zero turnovers. He was able to run a lot of pick-and-roll action and looked extremely comfortable, especially in the first half.
I think it benefited Hayes and will continue to benefit him to have Frank Jackson in the bench unit alongside Hayes. Jackson scored 11 points and hit just 1-of-5 threes as he attempted to shake the rust off, but he knows how to get open and Killian knows how to find him.
But let’s get back to Cunningham. He was truly in his bag tonight, and he was dictating the flow of the game, had the defense on a string and was confidently finding his spots all over the floor.
He hit from the mid-range, canned six of his nine 3s and was able to snake his way into the lane for several layups.
Look what he did to the poor MVP in Denver.
Cade Cunningham creates space for the three with a vicious step-back on Nikola Jokić.— The Athletic NBA (@TheAthleticNBA) January 26, 2022
But he eventually ran out of gas (he played 39:50 on the night). With just over a minute left and the Pistons down four, Detroit put the ball in the rookie’s hands and asked him to complete the comeback. But he had nothing left.
He couldn’t create separation and he settled for tough looks including a fadeaway and a stepback in the paint. They weren’t close and the Nuggets were able to escape with a victory.
Still, it was a great game for Cunningham and put the league on notice that this battle for rookie of the year is not over quite yet. Don’t ship the trophy over to Evan Mobley until the season is complete.
Not every Piston had a good game, however. Isaiah Stewart was severely outmuscled by Jokic and committed some dumb fouls on his way to zero points and just four rebounds in 25 minutes.
Hamidou Diallo had some decent drives to the basket but his jump shot looked awful and the decisions to pull up from all over the floor were questionable. He finished with 14 points but would have benefited from kicking out to teammates on several possessions.
But the true worst player of the game was none other than Josh Jackson. The reserve guard missed his only shot, made a truly stupifying pass that could have been picked off by any of three Nuggets camped in the paint and was quickly ejected after getting two technical fouls, including one tech while arguing a no-call while the play was still live and he missed a chance to grab an offensive rebound.
Just as quickly as he entered the game, Josh Jackson was gone and who knows when we’ll see him again. With Frank Jackson healthy and capable of filling in his spot in the rotation and Rodney McGruder playing minutes, Josh might find himself the odd man out.