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Sixers-Pacers recap: Philly’s youngsters make the best of a bad situation

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TJ McConnell, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Richaun Holmes have proven why these meaningless late season games matter.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers have been anything but watchable over the past few weeks, and it’s not entirely their fault. Injuries have hit the roster like the Plague, and the few remaining able-bodied players are dealing with fatigue and the general inexperience that comes with playing with a band of D-Leaguers and Tiago Splitter.

As miserable as the team has been to watch in what has morphed into a rather disappointing season, Philadelphia’s lack of roster continuity has opened the doors for sophomore center Richaun Holmes and rookie wing Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to shine. Holmes’s role has seen remarkable expansion since the trade of Nerlens Noel and the injuries to Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor, while Luwawu-Cabarrot’s increased playing time has coincided with an injury to Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas’s move to backup point guard. There’s also TJ McConnell, who, despite being the team’s starting point guard since late December, is going to be forced to prove his worth on a nightly basis for the rest of his career due to his size and lack of natural skill.

These late season games have meant very little to the Sixers outside of the purpose of improving their potential draft pick, but for the three youngsters, the opportunity to prove themselves is something they’ve clearly taken very seriously.

The Sixers fell to the Indiana Pacers 120-111 in their last game at the Wells Fargo Center for the 2016-17 season, yet the triumvirate shone bright. Alex Poythress (5-7 from three) also played shockingly well, but in general he is not good and will not be here next year, therefore I have no real interest in discussing his exploits.

Luwawu-Cabarrot led the team with a career-high 24 points (8-12 FG, 4-5 3PT). McConnell stuffed the stat sheet with 12 points, eight assists, five rebounds and three steals. Richaun Holmes added 17 points and six rebounds of his own.

After falling behind 21 points early in the first half, their solid play helped the Sixers chew away at what was a commanding Indiana lead, allowing the team to linger until the final buzzer.

You can just see that there’s something special about Luwawu-Cabarrot. He plays with a certain confidence and natural knowledge of the game that is unexpected for a 21-year-old who was playing in Serbia just a year ago. The Frenchman has a gorgeous shooting stroke that was money from the corners on Monday night, and he’s turning into an excellent slasher. Considering the tendency of shooting guard ghosts of Sixers past to just linger aimlessly around the perimeter, Luwawu-Cabarrot has shown a penchant for breaking up the monotony with strong cuts to the rim. It’s exactly what this team has needed, and makes him a perfect weapon to pair with Ben Simmons next year (the two displayed some really good chemistry in Summer League). He’s also made leaps and bounds on the defensive end, which was a serious weakness in his game during his time with Mega Leks. Lock him in the weight room this summer and come October the Sixers will have a solid two-way wing that should command rotational minutes, even on a fully healthy roster.

I’d say McConnell continues to defy the expectations that have been bestowed upon him, but this kind of production is now the norm. He’s become the heart and soul of this team, his hard-nosed play willing this Sixers squad to the finish line. He stole another sidelines out of bounds pass against the Pacers, and nearly nabbed another backcourt inbounds pass in the first half, a patented McConnell play that sent him tumbling into the second row of courtside seats. He’s got that turnaround, mid-range jumper down pat, and every once in a while can lull a defender to sleep with a hesitation dribble en route to a layup. McConnell has been given every chance to mess up his opportunity, to display that he can’t hack it in this league of elite athletes. Yet every time he takes the floor he shows that this is exactly where he belongs. If the Sixers want Simmons to play point guard next season, then there’s no reason why McConnell can’t be his backup, and a damn good one.

Holmes has been a constant in the Sixers asinine front court situation over the past two years, and it should stay that way. Monday wasn’t his best effort -- he really struggled to keep Myles Turner off the glass -- but he’s proven his worth as an energy big who can wreak havoc in the pick-and-roll. Holmes threw down another mean poster dunk on Myles Turner, and then converted a difficult alley-oop on the following possession.

Those plays brought some much needed life to a game that originally felt like a funeral, and helped jumpstart a 14-4 Sixers run. There’s certainly some value in keeping a player like that around just for the reason of being able reinvigorate both the team and the home crowd.

In the final two months of a season that felt so empty and worthless, Luwawu-Cabarrot, McConnell and Holmes have proven why these games have mattered. It’s given them an opportunity to display that they deserve to be here even when the Sixers make the eventual jump to becoming a playoff team.

Philadelphia will wrap up their season on Wednesday against the New York Knicks.