Pistons waste Cunningham's career-high 34 points in 110-105 defeat against Nuggets

By Steve Kornacki
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — Basketball is a team game, and Pistons coach Dwane Casey stressed that to the media Tuesday night, prior to the Denver Nuggets beating his team for the second time in three days — this time by a 110-105 score.

However, this game offered fans at Little Caesars Arena a special show put on by two players who are among the favorites to win two of the NBA’s biggest awards after this season.

Pistons guard Cade Cunningham (2) defends Nuggets guard Monte Morris (11) in the second quarter Tuesday night. Cunningham had a career high 34 points, eight assists, eight rebounds, four blocked shots and two steals.

Denver was led by MVP candidate Nikola Jokic — who scored 28 points while grabbing 21 rebounds and dishing nine assists. He had 34 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in the Nuggets’ 117-111 victory Sunday in Denver.

Detroit was led by Rookie of the Year candidate Cade Cunningham — who had a career-high 34 points. He became the 14th player in NBA history to have this stat line minimum: 34 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four blocked shots and two steals. Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson are among those in the group.

Cunningham's two-point shooting attempt to make it a two-point game with under 20 seconds remaining missed, though, and sealed the Pistons’ fate.

Both players dominated the game over the full length of the court at so many different points in the action. Cunningham said he could sense how into the game the fans were by what they were witnessing.

BOX SCORE: Nuggets 110, Pistons 105

“You can feel the intensity in the arena,” said Cunningham, who both wished the Pistons could’ve pulled out a win and that he could’ve gotten to the free-throw line at least once in the game.

Asked about playing against the defending NBA MVP, Jokic, just one year removed from Oklahoma State, Cunningham said, “It’s definitely surreal. I imagine these moments so much that I don’t feel out of place. I’m proud of myself to put myself in this position, playing the game I love.”

Cunningham was at his best in the first quarter, outscoring Jokic, 13-11, by making 5-of-6 shots, including all three 3-point attempts (coming in an amazing stretch of 1:22), while adding three assists and two rebounds.

“If you are not making threes in this league,” said Casey, “you are not going to be in a lot of games. And when he does that, it opens up the floor. That’s a big area of improvement for Cade — 3-point shooting.”

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Cunningham contributed mightily to the great ball movement Detroit — which also got 21 points from Saddiq Bey — exhibited at many times. Cunningham, prompting “MOTORCADE” flashings on the overhead scoreboard, also powered around Jokic one time, and blocked a two-hand slam attempt by 6-foot-8 forward Aaron Gordon.

“The way he sees the floor, passing the ball and hitting other people, he really gave it to us on the offensive end," Casey said. "And he’s got to keep attacking and going to the rim.”

When asked what’s meant the most to him, Cunningham said, “I’m happy with how much my teammates trust me with the ball more than anything.”

Cunningham is averaging 16.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.3 assists.

Pistons forward Saddiq Bey (41) tries to steal the ball from Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) in the second quarter.

Jokic is averaging 26.2 points, 13.9 rebounds and 7.6 assists — awesome numbers that had a few fans near the baseline shouting to him what many around the NBA believe could once again be his title at season’s end: “M-V-P!”

He was nicknamed “Joker” by former teammate Mike Miller, who could not pronounce his last name, which is pronounced yo-KITCH. It stuck in 2017, replacing “Big Honey,” and as you might suspect, Jokic prefers his new tag. They sell T-shirts in Denver of Jokic as the Batman Joker character.

And Jokic is definitely a villain for the opposition — a nearly unstoppable force.

He opened Denver’s scoring with a high-arcing 3-pointer from down the middle and deep. There was an audible groan among the home fans, knowing more was coming.

Jokic often leads the break after a defensive rebound, and is highly-skilled in every facet of the game.

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There was the 92-foot pass off one rebound. Jokic threw the basketball as if it were a softball, on a dime, to Austin Rivers for a layup.

The 7-foot, 284-pound Serbian center was drafted 41st overall by Denver in 2014, having never played in the U.S. His older brother, Nemanja Jokic, played three seasons at the University of Detroit from 2006-09, averaging 3.8 points and 2.7 rebounds as a 6-foot-6 forward in his final season.

Bigger brother has paid huge dividends for the Nuggets, bringing to mind the 7-foot Serbian center Detroit took with the No, 2 overall pick in 2003 behind high school phenom LeBron James. Darko Milicic became one of the biggest busts in draft history.

Jokic is everything Milicic wasn’t: strong, quick and lethal both inside and outside. He used both hands so well on one drive to the bucket to score.

Nuggets forward Jeff Green (32) defends Pistons guard Cade Cunningham (2) in the third quarter.

When he got loose another time, Milicic powered in for a one-hand slam. Nobody even thought about stepping in to take a charge, and you couldn’t blame them. He attracted three Pistons on one play down low, and simply dished to the corner to forward Jeff Green (20 points) for an open 3-pointer.

Jokic made all seven free throws, but Casey saw that as a good sign in holding him under 30 points.

“To keep Jokic to seven free throws is a minor miracle,” said Casey, who before the game referred to him as “one of the best centers in the world.”

It was quite a show, from beginning to end, by two of the game’s most entertaining and effective players.

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.