HOUSTON – Cade Cunningham vs. Jalen Green. It’s a matchup that sells itself. That’s good news for ESPN, because the Detroit Pistons have little interest in making Wednesday’s game bigger than it is: one of 82.
The NBA draft’s first overall pick for 2021 will be the second overall pick on Wednesday, when the Pistons face the Houston Rockets in a nationally televised ESPN game — the only one on the schedule for both teams. It’s a game that fans from both sides have revolved around for months.
Green has done his part to fuel the rivalry. In a post-draft interview with Yahoo Sports this summer, he said he didn’t want to live in Detroit despite wanting to be the No. 1 choice, saying Detroit is a boring city. This was less than a month after he told GQ that he did indeed want to live in Detroit.
[ What we’ve learned about Pistons: Cade Cunningham looks like he belongs ]
When asked on Tuesday about his expectation of the game, Cunningham’s focus was elsewhere. Born and raised in Arlington, Texas, Cunningham said he will have a lot of family. Otherwise it’s another NBA game.
“I’ve played a lot of basketball games in my life,” Cunningham said. “I’ve played in big basketball games that meant a lot to the media and the fans, whatever. And so I’m going to try and approach this the same way. It’s the Pistons vs. the Rockets now, and we’ve got to try to going to win.”
It won’t be the first time Cunningham and Green have faced each other. Their first post-draft match-up was in the Summer League in Las Vegas, and it drew one of the biggest crowds of the week. Green scored 25 points and Cunningham scored 20 and knocked down four 3-pointers.
Despite the underlying hype, the Pistons (1-8) were the NBA’s worst-shooting team for the first part of the season. Dwane Casey coaches a young team and keeps distractions to a minimum.
“They’re like us, similarities, but there’s no individual rivalry, team rivalry,” Casey said. “Christian (Wood) is part of our program like a lot of the other guys in the league. It’s the Houston Rockets vs. the Detroit Pistons, and for us, looking at it a different way, we don’t have that much focus in in any case. We have to make sure that we stay locked into exactly our job and don’t get caught up in individual rivalry or trade rivalry or whatever it is.”
The Pistons and Rockets (1-9) are similar teams in many ways. They both started rebuilding in 2020 and Houston moved on with James Harden and the Pistons parting ways with Blake Griffin. They both selected players in this year’s draft with franchise-changing caps. The two teams struck a mutually beneficial trade, with the Pistons sending Wood and a prospective first round pick to the Rockets in exchange for the draft pick that became Isaiah Stewart.
They are also two of the remaining three NBA teams, including the New Orleans Pelicans, with a single win. Neither Cunningham nor Green have made a warm start. Both have had flashes, but Cunningham shoots 23.2% overall and 14.3% of 3 while shedding rust after missing training camp, preseason and part of the regular season. Green wasn’t much better, at 35.3% overall and 28.3% from 3.
[ How Cade Cunningham displayed his clutch gene despite loss to Nets ]
Cunningham finally took part in full practice over the weekend, with the Pistons getting four days off. It allowed him to review some of the mistakes he made in the four games he played, and to get used to the playbook better.
“I haven’t been able to train like that with the team since I got back,” Cunningham said. “It’s been really good. We’re getting our bits more, we’re just being around each other a little bit more in practice and getting the togetherness a little bit better.”
Cunningham and the rest of the team are certainly aware that Wednesday’s game will be a major draw. But to maximize their chances of winning, they reverse the external pressure to play the game.
“We can’t afford to get caught up in something like that,” Casey said. “It will be against their five players. They have an excellent, athletic young team, just like us. We can’t afford brain power, brain energy used for that part of the game. That will be our focus in.”