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Fixing the Milwaukee Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks have been awful this year, but the future is bright. Here are several things they need to do as they rebuild

John Zitzler

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The 2013-14 season may hasn’t gone how the Milwaukee Bucks had hoped, but the season full of losses might have been exactly what the team needed. Unlike the Philadelphia Sixers, the Bucks went into this year hoping to fight for one of the final playoff seeds in the weak Eastern Conference. They brought in veteran players such as O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal, Caron Butler, Carlos Delfino, Zaza Pachulia and Luke Ridnour to help bring stability and leadership to an otherwise young group, with aspirations of a surprising season.

However, it didn’t take long to see that even with the team’s offseason additions, they weren’t going to win many games. The Bucks rolled into the All-Star break with a paltry record of 9-43. It was evident to even the most optimistic fan that despite being in the very down Eastern Conference, this season was not going to end with a playoff berth.

The team unloaded a few of the veteran players brought in just a few months prior, trading Ridnour and Neal to the Charlotte Bobcats for Ramon Sessions and Jeff Adrien, and also waiving Caron Butler, who would go on to sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. These moves were a step in the right direction and will give the Bucks increased flexibility going into this offseason. There is still a lot of work to be done for the Bucks to return to playoff contention, but if they play their cards right that time could come sooner than later.

Build Around Giannis Antetokounmpo

When discussing the Bucks’ future, the conversation starts and ends with Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks hit a home run in last year’s draft, stealing the young Greek with the 15th overall pick. Bucks general manager John Hammond and his staff have to be commended for taking such a big risk on somewhat of an unknown player. Antetokounmpo has paid dividends for the Bucks much earlier than expected. It was anticipated that due to his age and lack of experience against high level competition that Antetokounmpo would not offer much in terms of production during his rookie campaign, but it quickly became apparent that he was much better than expected. Even with his surprising play, there remains plenty of room for growth – growth that will play a major factor in the Bucks’ success going forward.

Antetokounmpo was able to carve out a nice role for himself as a rookie, playing 24.3 minutes per game and even starting in 22 contests. He showed he is capable of contributing in a number of different ways, averaging 6.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists and .8 blocks. While his numbers may not seem incredible, some of the highlight reel plays he has made this year certainly have been. On a number of occasions, he has swatted a shot off the backboard and followed the rejection with a dunk on the other end. It’s these glimpses of brilliance on both ends that have fans in Milwaukee so excited. Antetokounmpo seemingly has one of these moments every few games, making plays that leave your jaw on the floor. There is no doubt the talent is there.

With the his first NBA offseason approaching, the franchise must now focus on harnessing and developing Antetokounmpo into a player that will be a difference maker for years to come. His shooting has been spotty but encouraging for such a young player, shooting 31.8 percent from three and 41.7 percent overall from the field. He has shown he is more than capable from beyond the arc and has looked especially comfortable shooting from the wing.

If Antetokounmpo can work to develop a more consistent jump shot this offseason, it will really allow for him to become more efficient on the offensive end. At the same time, he must work hard to add some muscle to his slight frame, as added strength would help him in many aspects of his game, especially finishing around the rim, playing defense and rebounding the ball. Bucks fans should be very excited to see what the future holds for Antetokounmpo, and the Greek Freak should be viewed as a cornerstone piece for the franchise going forward.

Develop the “Other” Young Players

Even though the team brought in some veterans last offseason, the Bucks still have a nice crop of young players outside of Antetokounmpo to work with. Development of Antetokoumpo should be a major priority, but there are some other good prospects on this roster as well. John Henson, Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Nate Wolters are all under the age of 24.

Henson, who had his third-year option picked up by the team in October, must focus on adding strength and continuing to develop his inconsistent mid-range jumper. He has proven that he can deter and block shots (1.8 per game) around the rim, but does sometimes get out muscled by bigger players. Right now, it is tough to play Henson and Larry Sanders together, as both players score primarily at the rim. This clogs up the lane, making it difficult for the guards to penetrate the paint and create. If Henson can get to the point where he is confidently knocking shots from the baseline and inside the arc on the wing, it would give the Bucks some increased flexibility with their frontcourt rotations and also add some needed versatility to his game.

In his first season in Milwaukee, Knight has become a focal point offensively and has been the team’s most consistent threat on that end of the court throughout the season. He leads the team in scoring (17.5 PPG) and has the highest Usage Percentage at 26.9 percent. The big question for Knight is should he be the one running the offense or is he best suited playing off the ball? Knight does lead the team in assists per game (4.9), but can have trouble when the play breaks down creating for teammates. If Knight wants to be the point guard of the future for the Bucks, he will have to become a better playmaker. He must also work to become more efficient from three-point range. He leads the team in attempts from deep at 294 but is only shooting a meager 33 percent.

Middleton, who came over to Milwaukee from Detroit as part of the Brandon Jennings trade, has been a very pleasant surprise. He has shown that he can be very dangerous threat from outside. Middleton has been the most consistent shooter on the team, leading in three pointers made (106) and three point percentage (42.2 percent). Though his sample size is somewhat limited, it appears Middleton will be a very capable shooter from deep. At times his game can be a little one dimensional. Middleton’s 2014-15 salary is non-guaranteed, but Milwaukee will almost certainly keep him and then extend a qualifying offer to him the following summer to make him a restricted free agent. While Middleton may never be star, he will be solid contributor as long as he can continue to shoot the ball efficiently, one the Bucks should look to keep around.

Wolters was selected in the second round of last year’s draft and, like Middleton, has been somewhat of a revelation. In 58 games, including 31 starts, before recently injuring his hand, he showed that he can be a steady option at point guard. He does a great job protecting the ball and rarely turns it over. He does need to work on his outside shot, but has a chance to be solid backup at point guard for years to come.

Make the Right Draft Pick

This June, thanks to their less than stellar season, the Bucks will have the chance bring in some young talent via the draft. Depending on how the ping pong balls bounce, the Bucks could pick as high as one and most likely no lower than fourth. Luckily for the Bucks, this draft has a number of very intriguing prospects including Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart and Dante Exum among others. Jeff Goodman of ESPN.com has stated that “sources indicate” that Hammond favors Joel Embiid with the Bucks’ first pick. Once the Bucks know exactly where they will be choosing on draft day, it should make it easier to pinpoint exactly who the team will target but for now it looks as if Embiid tops the team’s wish list.

The Bucks need to target the best player available regardless of their current roster make up. The team can’t afford to pass on a potential All-Star and possible superstar, even if it may unbalance roster. Embiid, Parker and Wiggins are all very highly regarded and could change the course of the franchise if they play up to expectations. Hammond has a very important decision to make, one that will have a major impact on the future of the team.

One area in which Hammond has really excelled is finding solid players in the second round. Some of his second-round picks include Nate Wolters (2013), Doron Lamb (2012), Jon Leuer (2011) and Jodie Meeks (2009), all players contributing for NBA teams this season. The Bucks will have three picks in the second round of this coming draft and it will be another great opportunity to add youth and depth to the roster. Following the draft, the team should have a very good core group of young players to build around.

Resurgence of O.J. Mayo and Larry Sanders

In the short-term, the quickest way for the Bucks to get better is with increased production from their two highest paid players. Larry Sanders and O.J. Mayo both had disappointing years and their missing production certainly played a part in the team’s poor season.

Mayo was signed to a three-year, $24 million contract last summer, with the expectation that he would be the starting two guard. He was given the job to begin the season, but never really settled in. Mayo has only ended up starting 25 games. Even when Mayo was playing starter’s minutes, he rarely seemed to assert himself on offense. He tended to be very stagnate and lethargic, often waiting for the ball to swing around to him for a three rather than aggressively working for a better look. He can be a prolific three-point shooter, but can be all too willing to float around the perimeter waiting for the ball to find him. This may be one of the last opportunities Mayo has to prove that he’s an NBA starter. If he can bounce back with a strong year, it would go a long way in helping the Bucks improve.

Sanders made a name for himself during the 2012-13 season for his intimidating play in the paint. He was a shot blocking machine, sending back just under three shots a game. The Bucks rewarded Sanders by signing him to a four-year, $44 million contract last summer. It’s safe to say things haven’t turned out exactly as the Bucks had planned since signing Sanders to an extension. Sanders missed 25 games to start the season after being involved in a nightclub altercation in which he injured his thumb. Sanders did return in late December, but struggled to replicate his production from a season ago. The rough stretch for Sanders continued as he fractured his orbital bone in early February and has since been declared out for the season.

Having Sanders anchor the defense is a must for the Bucks if the goal is to win as soon as possible. Sanders has proven that he can be an elite rim protector and if he can stay out of foul trouble, he can really influence a game. Sanders’ ability to return to 2012-13 form will be a major factor for the Bucks next season because when he’s on top of his game, there are few players who can singlehandedly elevate a defense the way he can.

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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NBA PM: Clippers In A Hole, Hoping For Spark From Beverley

The Clippers are in an early season free-fall and are hoping Patrick Beverley can help get them back on track.

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers came into the season with the intention of turning the departure of Chris Paul into a positive. His departure led to the team netting the small forward it had always lacked in Danilo Gallinari, a replacement point guard in Patrick Beverley and a number of other new faces. With the massive turnover in key players, the hope would be that the Clippers would take this new mix of players and build around the franchise centerpiece, Blake Griffin, and thrive in a new era of Clippers basketball.

For now, at least, those offseason hopes have been dashed. The team is in the midst of a horrid skid where they have lost their last eight games and 10 of their last 11 going back to October 28. After losing the first two games, the team is playing their third of a five-game road trip tonight against the New York Knicks. When the team returns, they will host the Los Angeles Lakers who have been playing well as of late. Although the season is still young, the team is currently 13th in the Western Conference, nestled between the Phoenix Suns and the Sacramento Kings, and behind the Lakers. Not good company to have if your goal is to make the playoffs.

The team is coming off of an overtime loss to the Cavaliers in Cleveland and a 102-87 loss to the Charlotte Hornets that had been closer than the final score indicates. Yet, Head Coach Doc Rivers didn’t mince his words when judging the team’s performance against the Hornets.

“Overall this is a tough stretch to go through,” Rivers stated. “I thought we were selfish as far as moving the ball and playing together.”

Rivers didn’t hold back and made it clear how unhappy he was with the team’s effort.

“This was the first game that I wasn’t happy as a coach,” Rivers stated. “I can take losing even poorly if we play right. I just didn’t think we played right tonight.”

Coach Rivers is frustrated and with good reason. Only Griffin and bench sparkplug Lou Williams made their mark on offense with 19 and 25 points, respectively. DeAndre Jordan was the only other Clipper to register in double digits with 10 points.

Offense overall isn’t exactly the issue for the Clippers. Per nba.com, the Clippers’ offensive rating is 105.9, good for 10th in the league. However, the team’s assist percentage is 28th in the league at 51 percent, echoing Coach Rivers’ concern regarding selfish play. Look no further for proof than Jordan, whose shooting percentages have dropped from 71.4 percent to 64 percent, his worst shooting since the 2012-2013 season. Jordan depends on others to create for him through lobs, pick and roll finishes, dump offs and opportunistic put backs.

Injuries have helped to create and magnify many of the individual issues the team faces. In fact, all of the key players that have been missing from the Clippers rotation are capable playmakers and passers that can help to create a more fluid offense. Unfortunately, there is no clear timetable indicating when Gallinari and Euro passing sensation Milos Teodosic (only two games played) are set to return. Help is on the way with the Beverley set to return to the lineup tonight against the Knicks after missing the last five games.

On offense, Beverley is averaging 12.5 points, three assists and 3.9 rebounds. These are acceptable statistics that only partially indicate his worth to the team. Beverley had had success taking (5.3) and making (2.1) three-point shots at nearly a 40 percent clip (39.6). Beverley does a good job of creating space off the ball, allowing Griffin to be a scorer and a facilitator. In addition, Beverley has had success driving to the rim, where he is shooting 59.3 percent (0-3 feet from the rim), he can score, run pick and roll with Jordan or kick the ball out and keep the offense moving from side to side.

Coach Rivers made his view of Beverley’s value relative to their recent poor play abundantly clear.

“We get Patrick [Beverley] back Monday night,” Rivers stated. “[We can] start playing the right way, we will be all right.”

Beverley had been developing chemistry as a complement to everything the team does on defense as well as offense. Beverley has taken his aggressive defense to the Clippers and by doing so had taken up a shared role as a lead defensive weapon alongside Jordan. The team could use the help on defense where, over the last 11 games, they sport the worst defensive rating (111.3) in the NBA.

Having Beverley’s balance of defense and offense should be a boost to the team. The Clippers have earned a reputation over the years for sniping at the refs and getting flustered when things don’t go their way, which has bubbled up in their recent losing skid. Beverley helps with the intangibles as well including effort and hustle, which may help offset the team’s penchant for complaining.

Another benefit will be the ability of the team to re-insert Beverley back into the starting line-up and place guard Austin Rivers back on the bench. Rivers can be a productive player who brings a scoring punch against opposing second units while being available as a small ball small forward when necessary. Rivers can also be a pest on defense when focused. However, injuries have forced Rivers into the starting line-up where he has been less effective.

In an exclusive interview with Basketball Insiders, Lou Williams discussed the value of the team’s injured players.

“It’s three starters,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “One guy’s [Beverley] our heart and soul on the defensive end. We have another guy [Teodosic] who was leading us in assists and we have another guy [Gallinari] who’s second in scoring.”

Whether the return of Beverley alone is enough to halt the team’s recent losing streak is unclear. The team is buried deep in the Western Conference and needs to get back on track sooner rather than later before the team falls too far behind to be competitive. As stated, there is no clear indication as to when the team will get Teodosic or Gallinari back. In addition, Griffin has his own history of injuries, having missed at least 15 games a season over the last four years. This year, the team has so far shown an inability to rise above injuries. The season is young but these are perilous times for the Clippers.

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Williams, Clippers Will Keep Pushing Through

The Clippers veteran guard chats with Spencer Davies in a one-on-one Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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For the second straight year, Lou Williams started his basketball season as a resident of California.

Despite being moved by the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline back in February, it wasn’t a long stay for the 31-year-old in Houston. After bolstering the Rockets’ bench in a big way during their playoff stretch, the organization dealt the veteran guard to the LA Clippers, meaning he was going right back to the City of Angels.

Which begs the question—did he even relocate from his old place?

“Yeah, I moved,” Williams told Basketball Insiders in Cleveland on Friday. “But I ended up moving back into the same neighborhood that I was in, so it was all good.”

The familiarity with the area must’ve been comforting, but playing for three different teams in such a short amount of time can’t be easy. It’s only been 15 games, but he already notices a discrepancy between the two that share the same arena.

“Obviously when you have different people running it,” Williams answered when asked to compare the Los Angeles franchises. “I think the Lakers were in a different space than the Clippers are. The Clippers are a more veteran group, so two completely different atmospheres.”

Winning four straight games to kick off the 2017-18 campaign, the year started out great for he and his new team, but it’s gone downhill in a hurry.

The Los Angeles Clippers are hurting in every way. Literally.

Only halfway through a five-city road trip, they’ve lost eight consecutive games and 10 of their last 11. Key members of their team are absent and they have been plagued by injuries out of the gate.

First, it was international sensation Milos Teodosic who went down with a foot injury in just the second NBA game of his career. Then there’s Danilo Gallinari, whose ailing hip has kept him out of action for two weeks. To top it all off, Patrick Beverley is dealing with a sore right knee that has forced him to miss over a week as well (he’ll reportedly be active on Monday night).

Without the trio, the Clippers are missing a little bit of everything, and Williams is eager for them to return to the floor because of it.

“It’s three starters,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “One guy’s our heart and soul on the defensive end. We have another guy who was leading us in assists and we have another guy who’s second in scoring.

“Three very important pieces of our team are missing. But we have other guys that’s stepping in doing the best job that they can. We’re just falling short.”

Aside from their most recent 15-point loss to the equally struggling Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center, Los Angeles has competed and been in almost every game during the long skid.

In Cleveland, they led for most of the way until midway through the fourth quarter. It was a back-and-forth affair when the Cavaliers struck back, and once the game went into overtime, the Clippers went cold and ran out of gas.

Taking out the element of overtime, the “close game, but no win” trend has been apparent as they attempt to get over the hump for a victory. Williams sees his team battling. They’re just not getting the outcomes they desire.

“Just continue to push,” Williams said of how LA can climb the wall. “We’ll have a couple of guys back this week from injuries.

“We’ve been playing extremely hard giving ourselves an opportunity to win these games and just haven’t been able to finish. Get guys back, just continue to push. We’ll break through.”

If Williams keeps on producing the way he has, especially as of late, that could be sooner rather than later. Over the last five games, the scoring assassin has put up over 30 points in two of them and 25 in another. In addition, he’s averaged over four rebounds, four assists, and more than a steal per game during the stretch.

When asked about what’s made him so comfortable, he kept it simple.

“Just playing,” Williams told Basketball Insiders.” Taking what the defense gives me and try to make shots. That’s it.”

Williams is special when it comes to how much he can impact a game in the snap of a finger. Over the course of his career, he’s one of those guys that have been able to just go off at any given moment.

“Just continue to play,” he said. “Play [as] hard as I can. I never really think about it until after the game. I just go out there, play [as] hard as I can. Put myself in position to score points and live with the results.”

You can recall Williams being an elite sixth man in this league for just about every team he’s been a part of. Whether it was with the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Lakers, Rockets or even with the Clippers now, he’s constantly been a guy to provide a powerful punch off the bench.

With the consistency and the energy he’s provided with second units throughout his career, it’s rather surprising that Williams has only won the Sixth Man of the Year award one time in his career. Having established this reputation, it should only be a matter of time before he’s rewarded again.

That being said, it’s got to be one of his aspirations, right?

“Not anymore,” Williams told Basketball Insiders, admitting he felt slighted in last year’s race. “Nah. Probably had one of the best seasons of my career and finished third, so I don’t really care no more.”

Furthermore, as one of the top sharpshooters the NBA has to offer, he told Basketball Insiders he doesn’t wouldn’t care to participate in the three-point contest, either.

Moving away from the individual side of things, Williams has enjoyed his time with the Clippers for the short time he’s been a part of the franchise.

One good reason is the opportunity to play under one of the league’s most respected head coaches in Doc Rivers, whom he credits has a unique manner of making adjustments.

“Doc is a high basketball IQ coach,” Williams said. “He knows how to break down the game on the fly, which is impressive. A lot of coaches, they make a lot of corrections at halftime or in film sessions. Doc makes them on the fly, which is great.”

Playing alongside two superstars isn’t so bad. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are a pairing that can dominate each and every time they step on the floor. In fact, having those two alone should be enough for the Clippers to get things turned back around.

When the frontcourt duo clicks on a nightly basis and the team returns to full strength, Williams believes that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

“It’s been fun,” Williams told Basketball Insiders of the experience with Griffin and Jordan. “Obviously, we would like to win some games and I think that tide is gonna turn once we get back healthy.

“But these two All-Star guys in this league that’s done an exceptional job for this organization—so it’s been a good time being with these guys.”

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NBA AM: All-Time Biggest Comeback Wins

The Warriors’ big 24-point comeback over the weekend was incredible, but where did it rank all time?

Joel Brigham

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One of the biggest NBA stories of the weekend was the Philadelphia 76ers scoring 47 points against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter Saturday night, only to blow their 24-point lead in fairly embarrassing fashion.

Kevin Durant joked about not being able to lose to Philadelphia for fear for Joel Embiid peacocking on Twitter afterward, while Embiid wrote about taking the loss in stride, adding “blowing a big lead” to their arsenal of experiences to avoid repeating in games to come.

In any event, that 24-point comeback was one of the most impressive comebacks in NBA history, though the good news for the Sixers is that there have been bigger blown leads than their own. Some of them much, much bigger. Heck, the Miami HEAT blew a 25-point lead just two weeks ago, so crazier things have happened.

The following are those crazier things. These are the biggest blown leads in NBA history:

#5 Boston Celtics vs. L.A. Lakers (2008) – By the time Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals had started, the Celtics had taken a 2-1 lead in the series, and the pivotal Game 4 was going to go down in Los Angeles. From the get-go, the Lakers looked like they were going to tie the series with little problem, jumping out to a quick 26-7 lead and finishing the first quarter up by 21 points. The lead got as large as 24 at one point, with L.A. still holding a 20-point lead with six minutes left in the third quarter.

But Boston ripped off a 21-3 run to finish the third quarter, cutting the lead to two and making it a much more exciting game than the first two-and-a-half quarters suggested. Their spirits broken, L.A. lost the game and, eventually, the series.

#4 Utah Jazz vs. Portland Trail Blazers (2010) – The Jazz came into Portland for this February game back in 2010 without starting center Mehmet Okur, whose absence was felt immensely as the Jazz fell into a 25-point deficit, trailing by 23 halfway through the third quarter. After chipping away at that lead throughout the fourth quarter, Utah still faced a four-point hole with just 30 seconds to go in the game, but Deron Williams made a couple of free throws, the Jazz got a stop on the defensive end, and Carlos Boozer put-back a last-second miss to send the game into overtime, where the Jazz put the finishing touches on the remarkable comeback win.

#3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Dallas Mavericks (2008) – The Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008 were not good. Still rebuilding post-Garnett, they had no business jumping out to a massive lead over the much more talented Dallas Mavericks, but that’s exactly what happened. The mediocre Wolves built a seemingly insurmountable 29-point lead, but as it happens, the lead was in fact quite mountable, as the Mavericks ripped into that lead thanks in large part to 24 second-half points by Jason Terry. With a seven-point victory, the Mavericks pulled off an impressive 36-point turnaround, albeit against one of the league’s worst teams.

#2 Sacramento Kings vs. Chicago Bulls (2009) – In one of the most stunning comebacks in league history, the Sacramento Kings rallied from being down 79-44 with 8:50 remaining in the third quarter to demoralize a Bulls team that flat-out didn’t see it coming. Sacramento finished the quarter on a 19-5 run to cut the lead to 19, then got it down to 95-91 with 2:28 left in the game. Rookie Tyreke Evans outscored the entire Bulls’ team 9-3 the rest of the way, and the comeback was complete. All of this was in Chicago, and the city’s fans literally booed the Bulls off the court. Needless to say, that was Vinny Del Negro’s last season as head coach in Chicago.

#1 Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz (1998) – In the midst of a seven-game winning streak, a Jazz team featuring Karl Malone and John Stockton did not enter this contest against Denver in 1998 expecting to fall into a 36-point deficit. The score was 70-36 at halftime with the lead expanding further in the third quarter, but that’s when Utah started to grind their way into the lead behind big nights from Malone (31 points) and Jeff Hornacek (29 points). Despite it being a record-breaking comeback, there was no one big remarkable moment. Rather, the Jazz just dismantled the Nuggets through attrition over the course the second half en route to a truly impressive come-from-way-behind victory.

The fact that teams have come back from deficits this huge is exactly why current NBA teams talk about never taking the foot off the gas. Almost no lead is safe, and that’s the beautiful thing about basketball. Sometimes the momentum shifts, and all that planned Twitter bragging goes right down the tubes. At least in Philadelphia’s case the team on the other end of the comeback was the defending champs.

And as this list proves, it could always be worse.

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