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Sixers-Hawks Preview: Saric and Ilyasova clash in Philadelphia

Punctuating their road trip Tuesday with a win against Brooklyn, the Sixers head home on a back-to-back to face Atlanta.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Philadelphia 76ers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

The development of Philadelphia’s core players has been an enamoring late-season aspect, and a refreshing distraction from Joel Embiid’s and Ben Simmons’ absences. This isn’t 2016’s final push on repeat; meaningful players are impacting games and evolving. As he plays his 75th consecutive game of the season tonight against the Atlanta Hawks (38-36), Dario Saric hasn’t shown complete exhaustion or has rested one outing. He’s a loud alarm, waking teams up to honor his skill set.

Averaging 19.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in March, the crafty rookie continues to contribute for Brett Brown. Last week, Saric was slinging no-look dishes to teammates with confidence and precision. Against Brooklyn last night, he flashed another promising tool in his arsenal. Saric utilized the paint as his wheelhouse, fine-wining the Nets with patience to convert attempts.

There’s designed hesitation, when at the beginning of the season he’d get stuck in certain spots and fold. With control of the Sixers’ offense and uptick in reps, this fortuitous situation might not’ve occurred if a certain player wasn’t dealt. He’ll face the guy that once supplanted him as a starter in Ersan Ilyasova tonight. A friendship developed between the two in Philadelphia, adding another wrinkle to the anticipated duel.

“The Professional” (hopefully that hasn’t carried over to Atlanta, for their sanity) offered scoring and floor spacing off the bench earlier this month but has regressed mightily. Thrusted into a starting role for injured All-Star Paul Millsap (who?), Ilyasova’s failed as a shooter. Just 14-of-47 (29.7 percent) from the floor and 3-of-18 from deep over his last four games, Ilyasova’s amidst a cold spell. However, he’s averaging a double-double over that span (10.2 PPG and 11.7 RPG). Ilyasova’s viability as a board cleaner is obviously needed, as Millsap deals with knee issues.

Despite struggling in his initial game without the Hawks’ star, Dennis Schroder has turned into a James Harden-lite point guard recently. Fueled by opportunity and an increase in his shot attempts, the Sixers (28-46) might’ve encountered the former first-round pick at the wrong time. Over his last three games, Schroder is contributing 26.3 PPG, 8.0 APG, and 5.3 RPG. You can spin the narrative to make it seem like he’s been an all-around force for Mike Budenholzer, but he’s turned the ball over 15 times during that span.

With T.J. McConnell not the most apt at containing dribble penetration, Schroder could be a problem. Atlanta employs a traditional backup point guard in Jose Calderon, but the Sixers had to compensate last night for Sergio Rodriguez’s injury with multiple ball handlers.

With the dearth of available players, as Robert Covington has been ruled out prior to tonight’s game, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (5.9 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 6.8 PER) has a prime opportunity to follow up on his solid performance from last night.

Still in the developing 3-and-D stage, TLC churned out one of his most impressive performances against Brooklyn (17 points, seven rebounds). Starting over Nik Stauskas and Gerald Henderson dealing with hip soreness, this has been the ideal run for a rookie who needed extensive reps. He’ll toss errant passes or miss attainable shots from deep, but, especially this season, you can handle his errors.

Likewise in Atlanta, rookie Taurean Prince is receiving substantial minutes and the Hawks are content with his volatility. Outside of former Saint Joseph’s star DeAndre’ Bembry, Budenholzer has no legitimate option to start at small forward. They haven’t pillaged the market for a veteran wing, and letting Prince have this opportunity early in his career illustrates Atlanta is invested in its future.

The Hawks are one of the weakest three-point shooting teams in the association, at 33.8 percent, however they bully their opposition on the boards. Dwight Howard has faded into relative obscurity, but he presents a physical challenge against Richaun Holmes and Shawn Long. One of Atlanta’s most consistent pieces this season (13.4 PPG, 12.8 RPG in 68 games), Howard continues to thrive catching feeds in his wheelhouse and using his bodybuilder physique to discard defenders. Holmes, packing a 6-foot-10, 245-pound frame, will have to absorb Howard’s constant back-down blows.

However, Howard can’t be a stationary defender near the paint. Holmes’ mobility works for Philadelphia, able to make the aging big man rotate, close out on shots and escape his comfort zone. It wasn’t the envisioned center rotation when the season started, but Holmes and Long, arguably, have outplayed expectations. Tiago Splitter and his devilishly handsome mustache also have joined the fold.

The Sixers look to start a winning streak, as they face the Hawks at 7:00 p.m. ET tonight.

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