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Hawks-76ers Preview

AP - Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers have entered every day of 2012 leading the Atlantic Division.

Until now.

Inconsistency over the past six weeks has finally dropped the 76ers out of first place, and they'll look to recover from a particularly discouraging loss by completing a season sweep of the visiting Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night.

The first three days of the season - Dec. 25-27 - were the only ones which ended with Philadelphia not having at least a share of the division lead, but that changed Friday. While the 76ers were routed 97-76 by a Washington team which had lost five straight, Boston beat Minnesota to break a tie atop the Atlantic and grab a one-game lead.

"For whatever reason, we weren't ready," coach Doug Collins said after his club trailed by double digits throughout the second half against the NBA's second-worst team record-wise.

"You get down and you think you're going to turn on some switch or whatever, and those guys knocked us around."

The 76ers (28-23) have lost six of nine to blow what was a three-game edge on the Celtics after winning three straight March 7-11. That's their only win streak since mid-February, going 8-14 due greatly to uneven play on offense.

Philadelphia has been held under 95 points in every loss during that span, averaging 83.6 while shooting 39.9 percent. All of their wins in that stretch have been by double digits as they've averaged 102.8 points.

Top scorer Lou Williams has gone a season-high nine straight games without reaching 20 points, averaging 12.6. Andre Iguodala returned Friday after missing two games with knee tendinitis, but he had seven points on 3-of-9 shooting as Philadelphia hit 36.6 percent.

Center Spencer Hawes, who recently returned from an Achilles injury, has been a model of inconsistency as the 76ers have split their last six games. He's scored in double figures in all three wins, shooting 51.5 percent while averaging 9.7 rebounds, and has totaled 15 points on 6-of-23 shooting in the three losses.

Friday's defeat dropped Philadelphia, which had the Eastern Conference's third-best record for much of the first half of the season, two games behind the sixth-place Hawks.

Atlanta (31-22), though, has lost four in a row to the 76ers and has dropped both meetings this season by double digits. The Hawks haven't been swept in a season series with Philadelphia since losing all three matchups in 2000-01.

Atlanta's Josh Smith has a combined 19 points on 7-of-26 shooting in this season's two meetings but enters this one on a tear. He's averaged 25.1 points and 11.3 rebounds over the past seven games.

Joe Johnson also has struggled against Philadelphia, averaging 10.8 points during the Hawks' four-game skid in the series.

Johnson totaled 23 points in back-to-back losses to Milwaukee and Chicago this week before bouncing back Friday with 28 to lead Atlanta to a key victory, 100-90 over a New York team which had won eight of nine.

"At this point, with few games to play as we move down the home stretch of the regular season, our focus has to be to get into a groove and get into a rhythm," coach Larry Drew said. "The last thing we wanna do at this point is to play and not play well."

The Hawks haven't played very well on the road, where they've dropped eight of 12. Only one of the victories in that span came against a team with a winning record.

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