Why Cade Cunningham's game for Pistons ended early: 'Had my people right behind the bench'

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The officiating crew believed Cade Cunningham was taunting. Cunningham claimed he was acknowledging "his people" who were sitting behind the Detroit Pistons' bench.

Whatever Cunningham's reason for his dramatic pointing gesture after a slam over Phoenix Suns center Jalen Smith in Sunday's 135-108 loss, his subsequent ejection brought a premature end to what was previously a fun battle between Cunningham and Devin Booker.

Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham dunks against Phoenix Suns forward Jalen Smith on Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022 at Little Caesars Arena.
Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham dunks against Phoenix Suns forward Jalen Smith on Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022 at Little Caesars Arena.

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The Pistons lost by 27, but the biggest story from the game was Cunningham's ejection — the first of his career — during the third quarter. After Booker finished a one-handed putback slam, Cunningham returned the favor on the other end by driving baseline and sending home a highlight reverse dunk. Immediately after, Cunningham pointed in Smith's direction. He had been whistled for a technical four earlier in the quarter, and another was called after the dunk.

Cunningham exited the game with 4:24 remaining in the quarter, and the Pistons trailing by 20. After the game, NBA referee Kevin Cutler clarified to the pool reporter that Cunningham was tossed "for a physical taunt for pointing at the defender."

But Cunningham had a difference explanation.

"I had my people right behind the bench," said the rookie, who finished with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting in 24 minutes. "I went baseline to dunk the ball, and he’s right in between me and my people. I probably should’ve read that situation better. I don’t really get into taunting too much. Usually I’m chilling after a play. I realized the situation after he tech'ed me up, but I didn’t think I was going to get a tech. I let coach Monty (Williams of the Suns) over there, let him know, 'Good game,' and stuff like that."

The ejection sucked the air out of what had been a fun game, despite the point differential. Cunningham was well on his way to besting his career-high of 29 points, and Booker had 30 points through three quarters. He then sat out the fourth.) The game was fairly competitive until the Suns pulled away in the third, using a 23-13 run to extend their lead to 20 midway through the period.

Pistons guard Cade Cunningham saves the ball against the Suns during the Pistons' 135-108 loss on Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, at Little Caesars Arena.
Pistons guard Cade Cunningham saves the ball against the Suns during the Pistons' 135-108 loss on Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, at Little Caesars Arena.

Josh Jackson was also ejected with 41 seconds left to play, with his second technical foul.

"He said Cade pointed at the guy that he dunked on," Pistons coach Dwane Casey said after the game. "I didn’t see that part. I thought he was pointing toward his teammate. That’s why he said he got a technical for and got ejected for, he already had one. I’ve seen a lot worse things to get ejected for than that. The Josh one, I haven’t looked at it yet. He said Josh hit, or pushed, or whatever at (Ish) Wainwright. I didn’t see that part either, I have to look at that.

"We’re not in position as a team to complain. Let me be the bad guy to fight for us. As a young team, we shouldn’t get that reputation of complaining to officials. Until we get to that level, we have to button up and zip up and play our butts off."

Cunningham had an unfortunate end Sunday, but his performance continued his run of strong play. He also dished out four assists and shot 60%. Since Nov. 30 — a span of 18 games — the 2021 No. 1 overall pick is averaging 17.9 points, 5.7 assists and 4.9 rebounds while shooting 44.4% and 39.6% from 3. He'll try to keep his momentum going as the Pistons — who are 5-4 in January — begin a four-game Western Conference road swing on Tuesday at Golden State.

"We’re still locked in," Cunningham said. "We feel ourselves getting better and growing together. This is a big road trip that we got to go into, we’re going to play some good teams. We’re excited to take that challenge on and see what we got."

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Cade Cunningham's game for Detroit Pistons ended early