Cunningham matches season-high with 34 points but Pistons lose 130-123 in Brooklyn

Steve Kornacki
Special to The Detroit News

Cade Cunningham, playing hurt, scored 29 of his 34 points Tuesday night in the second half but it wasn’t enough to save Detroit from a 130-123 loss in Brooklyn.

The Pistons played with grit and hustle, and found their 3-point shooting touch in the first half.

Detroit led by as many as 12 points in the first 24 minutes, but then Kevin Durant (41 points) and Kyrie Irving (22) put it in high gear and the Nets (40-36) pulled away to win and sweep the four-game season series.

Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving, right, defends Detroit Pistons' Cade Cunningham during the first half of their game Tuesday, March 29, 2022 in New York. The Nets win, 130-123.

It was the third consecutive loss for the Pistons (20-56), who watched the home team make 31-of-34 free throws while they made 11-of-13.

“They get 31 points on free throws and that’s the ballgame,” said Detroit coach Dwane Casey.

Cunningham, playing the second half with a heat wrap on his lower back area after sustaining a late first-quarter injury, returned to match the season high he first reached with 34 points on Jan. 25 against Denver in Detroit.

“He’s a warrior,” said Pistons center Isaiah Stewart. “He fought through the back injury.”

Casey said before the game: “Cade Cunningham should be Rookie of the Year. He shouldn’t be penalized because we are rebuilding.”

BOX SCORE: Nets 130, Pistons 123

After the game, Casey said Cunningham took a charge but did not get the call on the play in which he was hurt, adding, “But it tells me a lot about the young man to bounce back like he did. He played hurt. He can score 34 a lot of nights, and that’s admirable when he gets it when he’s hurt.”

Casey said of Cunningham’s deserving the Rookie of the Year award: “Pound for pound, talent for talent, Cade is that guy. He showed it against the best team in the East. He’s got ‘it.'"

Cunningham was asked to define ‘it’ after the game.

He spoke of versatility and then “playing to win” before saying: “Not everybody who’s super talented does that. I try to put my team first. I don’t know what he means by ‘it,’ but I think my game speaks for itself.”

Durant and Irving had hugs and good words for him afterward.

Cunningham said: “They told me, ‘Stay healthy. Keep working.’…It’s all love and respect at the end of the game.”

Detroit got solid scoring behind him, but it wasn’t enough.

Stewart finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds, while Saddiq Bey scored 15 and Marvin Bagley III finished with 11 while dealing with foul trouble.

The Pistons got 43 points from their bench – led by guards Killian Hayes (13 points, four steals, four rebounds) and Frank Jackson (11 points).

Detroit was shooting .324 on 3-pointers – ranking 29th of 30 teams in the NBA – but shot the lights out from behind the arc in the first half by making 9-of-17 (.529). Reverting to clanging shots front long range assured their fate. The visitors were 7-of-21 (.333) on second-half 3-pointers.

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The outcome wasn’t what the Pistons wanted, but they hung tough with a superior opponent.

Casey, in a pre-game Zoom call, had this to share about the message to his team with seven games remaining:

“Like I told our guys, ‘This is the beginning for next year.’ The way we end this season, the way we go through the summer, is the beginning of next year. It’s not vacation time or time to start shipping your cars back to wherever.

“This is time to hone your skills, hone how you’re going to play with this team and this group going into the future. Because we don’t want to be in this constant position of a rebuild for three or four years. We want to start making huge steps as we go forward.”

Brooklyn Nets' Nic Claxton (33) defends Detroit Pistons' Kelly Olynyk during the first half.

The Pistons appeared to take that challenge to heart in the first half, taking a 64-58 lead against a team led by superstars Durant and Irving while James Harden is out.

“Like I told the team,” said Casey, "I applaud the effort."

However, then the Nets remembered who they were, stepped up the defensive effort, filled the net, and pulled it out. Ex-Pistons Bruce Brown (15 points) and Andre Drummond (14 points) contributed to the winning offense.

“They ramped up their defense and we didn’t meet it,” said Casey.

It was difficult to explain how Detroit had a 29-25 advantage in the second quarter, when Cunningham went to the locker room with what turned out to be a tailbone contusion and didn’t return until the quarter’s final minute.

“Eventually, I just kind of ran out,” Cunningham said of returning to action. “They were like, ‘He left.'"

He smiled and at times reached to touch his back during the interview.

“Standing up and moving around was when it felt better,” said Cunningham. “Sitting down like now is when it stiffens up.”

It remains to be seen if Cunningham can play Thursday against Philadelphia in Detroit. But on this night, he gritted his teeth and put on a performance that will be one of his most memorable in what could be a Rookie of the Year season.

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.

Detroit Pistons' Braxton Key (8) shoots over Brooklyn Nets' Goran Dragic (9), of Slovenia, during the first half.