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For Sixers, focus at practice will be on defense

The 76ers shuffled into their practice facility yesterday dragging a slump that has left them on the wrong side of .500.

The 76ers shuffled into their practice facility yesterday dragging a slump that has left them on the wrong side of .500.

They have a break in the schedule and they probably would have earned themselves a day off if they had been able to play better perimeter defense on Monday. Instead, they watched visiting New Orleans drain 10 of 16 threes, so coach Tony DiLeo summoned in the fellas for a little work.

But before they put on their sneakers, they hit the film room to watch Monday's 98-91 loss to the Hornets. DiLeo allowed his players to speak up one by one. Rededication to defense, forward Marreese Speights said, was the most common theme. And what was Speights' message?

"He didn't call me up to speak, because I'm a rookie," Speights said, laughing, "but he called everybody else up."

The Sixers do not play again until Saturday, so they will use these next few days to try to regain the edge they had before the All-Star break. In the eight games before the break, the Sixers were 6-2. In the eight games since the break, they are 2-6.

"We have to get back to our principles, especially our defensive principles," DiLeo said. "We've had too many little breakdowns. We're going to have 3 good days of practice and get back our defensive principles. We're also going to work on our offensive execution, but for me, [improving] the defensive side is most important."

The perimeter defense, in particular, will be one of the primary focuses during the extended time off. Two days after Orlando made 15 of 37 threes, New Orleans used the three-point arc to suffocate the Sixers. The Hornets hit four of five daggers in the final quarter, none more lethal than Chris Paul's with a little more than a minute remaining.

"Teams are shooting high percentages from 'three' right now, and that's a big part of the game," point guard Andre Miller said.

DiLeo left open the possibility of changing the lineup based on the opponent. On Monday, New Orleans power forward David West manhandled Samuel Dalembert and scored the Hornets' first 12 points before Reggie Evans replaced Dalembert. West led the Hornets with 30.

"Maybe it was an unfair situation [for Dalembert]," DiLeo said. "We thought putting his length on West would be good, so we wouldn't have to double-team. But West is such a good player, it really didn't matter who we put on him, it seemed like he just did what he wanted to do."

Dalembert, who has played only 16 and 13 minutes, respectively, in the last two games, did not speak to the media yesterday.

"We're not communicating as well as we can," guard Louis Williams said. "I think that's one of the huge things that is hampering us right now. The defense is there, but we're not communicating."

The players can expect plenty of communicating from DiLeo and his staff the next few days. Some of the words might even be only four letters long.

Coming into last night, the Sixers were the Eastern Conference's seventh seed and nearly as close to the conference's fourth seed as they were to missing the playoffs entirely. It's getting late early, as Yogi Berra once said.

Starting Saturday in Memphis, they will play 23 games in 40 days - including five out West in mid-March.

"There's a lot of games in a short amount of time," Miller said. "It's going to be a tough stretch. This is really the only opportunity to get ourselves right mentally for the rest of the season. We'll see how it turns out." *