The 76ers insist they have lost just a bunch of games, not confidence. That impressive 121-109 victory over Milwaukee on Christmas Day seems like a long time ago. Since that win, the Sixers have struggled to gain their footing.

They have dropped four in a row (and Milwaukee has won five consecutive games since then). The players and coach Brett Brown insist that they remain confident things can turn around.

NBA teams go through lulls, and the Sixers are in one now. Whether it is a brief downturn or something greater remains to be seen.

That said, the Sixers haven’t exactly inspired confidence, despite a 23-14 record.

Sunday, they had a long practice and the players and Brown said all were excited to resume the schedule and show that they can emerge from this slump when they host Oklahoma City on Monday.

There will be many suggestions to snap the Sixers out of it, and maybe one will be about long-range shooting.

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— Marc Narducci (offthedribble@inquirer.com)

Three for all

One of the supposed weaknesses of the Sixers entering the season was their long-range shooting. While the Sixers don’t have the reputation of a three-point-shooting team, they have performed better than expectations.

Entering Sunday, the Sixers were 13th in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage, shooting 35.9%. They were just 25th in three-point attempts, averaging 30.1.

Coach Brett Brown has talked about wanting to see more three-point attempts. After Sunday’s practice, he was definitely looking to see more from Al Horford.

“I want him to keep shooting,” Brown said. “I want him to shoot threes. I want him to space and coexist with Joel [Embiid] in an environment where he feels comfortable and we find him firing threes. I couldn’t be any clearer with that role.”

Part of the troubles Horford has had with playing alongside Embiid is spacing. If Horford is in the three-point area, it opens room for Embiid inside. Horford is averaging 4.0 three-point attempts per game.

This season, Horford is shooting 33.8% from three-point range. During the four-game losing streak, he is shooting just 28.6% from beyond the arc.

Horford, for the most part, doesn’t force shots.

“I have had a lot of good looks, and I will keep shooting,” Horford said.

Of course, Brown also wants Ben Simmons to shoot more threes, stating earlier this year that he wanted to see at least one per game. That hasn’t worked out so well.

Simmons has attempted only five threes, making two. He has gone 12 straight games without an attempt.

Still, the way the NBA game is played, teams have to be proficient from beyond the arc. The Sixers are in the top half of the league in percentage, and now their coach would like to see them move up in attempts.

Joel Embiid rising for a shot against the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Joel Embiid rising for a shot against the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day.

Starting five

The Rockets' James Harden (13) is leading the NBA in scoring.
David J. Phillip / AP
The Rockets' James Harden (13) is leading the NBA in scoring.

Hard to guard Harden

In Friday’s 118-108 loss at Houston, the Sixers were torched by James Harden for 44 points, which doesn’t put them in exclusive company. Harden entered Sunday leading the NBA with a 38.4 scoring average.

The Sixers attempted to guard him with two of their top defenders, Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson. Nobody could slow him.

“There is nobody who can guard James one on one,” Richardson said. “It has to be a group effort.”

So his assessment on their defense against Harden?

“I thought we gave a good effort, but next time we have to look at the tape and try to do better," Richardson said. "But my opinion, he could quite possibly be the best offensive player in basketball, honest.”

What makes Harden so tough is that he plays at his own pace, and is always in control.

“Yes, and he is really shifty, a good change of pace, and that is why he is the best right now, one of the best,” Richardson said.

Important dates

Tonight: Oklahoma City Thunder at Sixers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBA TV

Thursday: Boston Celtics at Sixers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia, TNT

Saturday: Sixers at Dallas Mavericks, 8 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia

Jan. 13: Sixers at Indiana Pacers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia

Jan. 15: Brooklyn Nets at Sixers, 7 p.m. NBC Sports Philadelphia, ESPN

Passing the rock

Question: Furkan Korkmaz is an analogous story with Greg Ward of the Eagles. Both guys lit it up as rookies in training camp. Neither one was given the time of day as serious opening day roster candidates. Management then trots out arguments such as "Well, they did it against other bush league camp prospects on the other teams," etc. It's one of the downsides to drafting losers as top draft picks and trading for losers with expiring contracts when teams relegate obviously talented athletes to practice squads while slogging through the regular seasons with stiffs to whom they've committed. Some of these managers need to swallow their pride, admit mistakes, and promote these second-tier guys.

Reminds me of Robert Redford and Wilford Brimley in “The Natural.” Manager Wilford Brimley resents his GM for signing elderly rookie Redford. He’s got a last place team and a lousy bonus baby playing right field. Redford and the bench coach verify that Redford seems to be holding a valid contract in his hand in the dugout. Nonetheless, Brimley remarks to the bench coach, “Fine. He can dress in a uniform but I don’t have to play him.” He refused to play the obviously-talented player until an injury to the starter, I think. Just dumb. — David Glassman via email.

Answer: Wow, David, thanks for the letter, definitely one of the more creative ones we have received. I can say unequivocally that this is the first Wilford Brimley reference we have received here at Off the Dribble.

Your point about unheralded players is well taken. Korkmaz, as we wrote in a recent Off the Dribble, has exceeded expectations this season. That doesn’t mean the Sixers won’t keep looking for upgrades. He has some limitations, especially on the defensive end, but he has certainly made a positive contribution to the Sixers.

Send questions by email (mnarducci@inquirer.com) or on Twitter @Sjnard.