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NBA Daily: Fixing The Dallas Mavericks

Jordan Hicks continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a rundown of the Dallas Mavericks.

Jordan Hicks

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As we creep closer and closer to the end of the regular season, more teams will continue to be eliminated from the playoffs. Those teams then become part of Basketball Insider’s annual “Fixing” series. In continuing with the narrative, we will now take a look at the ever-interesting Dallas Mavericks and what they need to do to get back into the playoffs.

From a front office perspective, the Mavericks’ year has been spectacular. They’ve gotten off of contracts that most would consider negative. They struck gold in the 2018 NBA draft. And they traded for the Unicorn himself – Kristaps Porzingis – posturing themselves for a strong 2019-20 campaign. There is still plenty that the franchise needs to improve upon if they want to have a prayer at the postseason next year, so without further ado let’s dive into Mark Cuban’s pièce de résistance and see what needs to occur.

What Is Working

If it isn’t obvious who should be mentioned here first, then you just haven’t watched any basketball this season. The NBA has been taken by storm this season by a rookie so dominant, we haven’t seen the likes of his gameday numbers since one LeBron James. The rookie phenom being mentioned here – in case you have lived under a rock or something – is Luka Doncic.

The only rookie to match his per game statistics of 21.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 5.9 assists was Oscar Robertson clear back in 1960. In the three-point era, those numbers have never been posted by a rookie. Even LeBron’s rookie season couldn’t match those numbers. Keep in mind that Luka is doing this while being the leader of the team. He’s the central focus of every opposing team’s defensive scheme.

Most people who saw what Luka did in Europe dominating as a teen shouldn’t be too surprised with these results, yet here we are almost a full season after he was drafted and the numbers still seem absolutely mind-boggling. Luka has incredible court vision, elite size and length, and impressive athleticism for his age. He has quite possibly the second best step-back three-pointer in the league behind James Harden. This has allowed him to create his own shot on multiple occasions in the clutch when defenses seem to be playing him incredibly tight.

Speaking of clutch, his numbers in such situations are practically otherworldly for a rookie. With under one minute in the fourth quarter or overtime, when shooting to either tie the game or take the lead, Doncic is tied for first (!) for effective field goal percentage at 68.2 percent. Only 22 players qualify for the list – minimum of 10 field goals attempted – and he leads all but one of them. He’s tied with the current – and potential for this season – MVP James Harden.

Moving away from the dubbed “Wonder Boy,” we see a product that certainly has potential. Having Luka as your main building block is certainly a treat, but bringing in Porzingis via trade was absolutely a cherry on top. They had to part ways with Dennis Smith, Jr. – their lottery pick from last season – as well as two future first-round draft picks. Smith, Jr. has potential, he’s extremely athletic and seems competent as a point guard, but his fit never really worked for Dallas.

Porzingis and Doncic seem to be the duo that Dallas is banking their future on. While it is unclear how they’ll fit on the court, due to the fact that Porzingis will have missed the entire season recovering from a knee injury, it is hard to believe that it will be anything other than perfect. Still, there’s no telling until they step on the court together for the first time next season.

What Needs To Change

While there appears to be plenty to like with the young, European duo, there is a lot left to ponder outside of that relationship. Who else can the Mavericks rely on for scoring? Who will be the main rim protector? Will Dirk Nowitzki return and, if so, how will his minutes be allocated?

Dallas will have the likes of Tim Hardaway, Jr., Courtney Lee, Justin Jackson, Jalen Brunson and Dwight Powell – if he’s smart enough to opt into his final year – returning for the 2019-20 season. That’s not necessarily a group of guys that gets you excited. A quick scan of their upcoming free agents shows that perhaps J.J. Barea is the only player they’d actually want to take back – and even then he may not be ready to go until the middle of the season due in part to his Achilles injury.

To simply conclude what was just discussed above, the Mavericks may very well need a roster overhaul. So far this season, Dallas has the 20th best offense and the 19th best defense. They are 26th in three-point shooting and 25th in free throw percentage. We bring this up because – outside of personal development for a few of their younger players – not much will change next season with their current roster. What’s worse, is that we haven’t even seen KP and Luka play together yet. It’s assumed that they’ll coexist just fine, but there will certainly be hiccups along the way.

No one is expecting the Mavericks to take off next season, but Luka was very used to winning in Europe. Not just winning games, but winning awards and championships. How long will he be willing to lose in order to build a winning team? Culture is a huge part of basketball, and Dallas can’t afford to lose this way two seasons in a row. Heck, their now-second-best-player Porzingis has only ever known losing. He’d likely appreciate a winning season more than his teammate.

Focus Area: The Draft

The Mavericks currently hold the sixth worst record in the NBA. This is highly unfortunate for them, as their first-round draft pick this year – the pick they traded to Atlanta in order to get Luka Doncic – is top-five protected. The team with the fifth-worst record? The Hawks.

In order for Dallas to convey their pick this upcoming draft, they’d need to finish in the bottom five. With a handful of games still remaining, that is certainly a possibility. But it is far from a guarantee.

Dallas has lost eight of their last 10 games, so they are doing what they can to hypothetically tank their season. But the five teams below them are trying equally as hard – if not harder – to lose games, too. If Dallas cannot secure a first-round pick, they better hope they can secure a high-caliber player in the second round.

It is hard to say just what position Dallas needs. After trading DeAndre Jordan, they could definitely use some rim protection. While Doncic appears to be the team’s point guard moving forward, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to pair him with another PG/SG hybrid to ease his ball-handling burden.

Whatever happens for Dallas in the draft, it is crucial that they surround Porzingis and Doncic with whatever players will allow them to be successful. They can’t rely on Porzingis to be big on defense as they’d likely prefer his talents be used on the offensive end of the court. The same goes for Doncic. Adding size during the draft could definitely be used as a plus. Whether that is size under the rim or length on the wing, either would be a significant positive.

If Dallas lucks out and conveys their pick in the top-5, this draft is loaded with top-heavy talent. The front office should then be salivating at the opportunity to draft an RJ Barrett, De’Andre Hunter or Cam Reddish (assuming they can’t get Zion Williamson). These players would give them a solid mix of size and slightly developed offensive abilities.

Focus Area: Free Agency

This would be the Mavericks’ preferred method to acquire players. Not only does it allow them to “win now,” but it also allows them to take less focus on individual player development and put more focus on team basketball. Luka is clearly mature beyond his years and Kristaps has enough years in the league to no longer be considered a project. By adding solid veterans to their core, the front office won’t need to waste any resources on developing young, raw talent.

By sending off various contracts that were eating up too much cap space, primarily Harrison Barnes, Dallas has allowed themselves to go after a max to near-max level player. Whether or not budding free agents view Dallas as a premier location is unknown, but it is hard to imagine a world where someone wouldn’t want to be teammates with two young, incredibly gifted talents like Luka and KP.

There will definitely be a crop of available, max players at the end of the season, so Dallas should be incredibly aggressive in trying to sign one of them. They cleared up space to specifically do so.

If they are unable to land a marquee free agent, they should not be discouraged, however. Barnes was very much not a major part of their future plans, and most would consider his contract a tad-bit large for his overall skill set, so losing him to free up space wouldn’t be detrimental if they aren’t able to fill it with a max-level talent.

Still, if they can’t find max-guy, they should definitely hit the market to find multiple role players to help amplify the wide-range of skills that both Luka and KP employ.

Dallas has a history of winning seasons as well as a championship banner in their rafters. They are a team that has employed various Hall of Famers such as Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, and eventually, Nowitzki. They have one of the most active and prolific owners in the NBA in Mark Cuban. Building a winning roster is the most important things on the FO’s list.

Rick Carlisle has been with the organization for quite some time and they don’t appear ready to let him go anytime soon. If they can continue to build their roster around the budding Euro duo, there is no denying that they will have many successful years to come.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested as ever and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that might have led to their participation in the NBA’s new play-in tournament.

Though they’ve gone just 7-8, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars and, as a result, their drop in the standings has been rather painless, falling from third at the time of James’ injury to now fifth in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Play-In Game — East

With the play-in tournament just around the corner, Matt John previews who in the Eastern Conference might qualify for it.

Matt John

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It’s official: we’re entering the regular season’s endgame. Every game from here on out will have much bigger consequences, a statement even truer in 2021 than perhaps any other season thanks to the NBA’s new play-in tournament.

If you’re not familiar, the play-in tournament will consist of two matchups within each conference. The seventh and eighth seeds of both conferences will face off against one another, while the ninth and 10th seeds shall do the same. The winner of the seven-eight matchup will take their conference’s seventh seed, while the winner of the nine-10 game will face the aforementioned match’s loser for the eighth and final spot in the postseason. It’ll serve as a nice appetizer before the playoffs get underway.

So, now that we have 15 games left give or take, it’s time to get a full scope of who we’re most likely to see in this year’s play-in, starting with the Eastern Conference. There’s really no need to go over teams that have all but clinched their playoff spots like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or Milwaukee. Just like there’s no need to mention teams that are way too out of a reach for a playoff spot like Detroit and Orlando.

But that does leave ten teams in the Eastern Conference that we could potentially see in the play-in. At first glance, it would sound ridiculous to say that Boston and Cleveland could be in the play-in seeing how they are separated by ten and a half games, but Boston is only two and a half games ahead of Miami for that seventh seed while Cleveland is only three games behind Chicago for the tenth seed.

The best way to evaluate is to divide these into tiers. One for playoff teams who are likely to avoid the play-in, one for teams that are most likely to be in the play-in, and those that are likely to miss out on the play-in.

Likely to Avoid

Atlanta Hawks (30-26)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Six
Games Against East: 13

Replacing Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan proved to be a genius move by Atlanta’s front office, as the Hawks have won 16 of their last 23 games. They may have had that stretch where they lost four of five, but that was on a West Coast Trip. Seeing how almost 75 percent of their remaining games will be at home, it’s hard to see Atlanta collapsing. They may be decimated by injuries right now, but the schedule seems a little too easy for them to blow this.

Boston Celtics (31-26)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Four
Games Against East: 10

Much like Atlanta, Boston’s really hit their stride over the past few weeks. Getting healthy and making a few roster changes have helped them rediscover the team that started out so well at the beginning of the season. It’s hard seeing Boston folding down the stretch primarily because they won’t be facing too many strong opponents from here until the regular season’s end. Given their recent strong play, don’t expect an appearance at the play-in tournament.

Likely Play-In Teams

New York Knicks (30-27)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: Six

Give credit where credit is due. The Knickerbockers are not going away. They’ve stayed the course when many thought this was going to be another wasted year for them. They’ve given no reason to indicate that they’re stopping now. The reason they’re not as sure of a thing as Atlanta or Boston is because, over this last stretch, they’re going to face off against several Western Conference contenders looking for the highest seeding possible. As tough as that’s going to be, the Knicks are going to make each one of them earn those wins, guaranteed.

Miami HEAT (28-28)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East: 11

It’s been difficult to get a read on the reigning Eastern Conference champions. They go on stretches that basically even out each other. After starting out 11-17, they win 12 of their next 13, then follow that up by losing their next six games, then win six of their next seven, then finally and most recently, they lose their next three games. No one really knows what Miami’s ceiling is right now. Odds are, the HEAT will probably be in the play-in. It’s just a matter of where. Also, why have we still not gotten any updates on Victor Oladipo?

Charlotte Hornets (27-28)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: 13

What’s happened to the Hornets over the past few weeks is just straight up not fair. If LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward were playing, they’d solidly be in the same tier as Boston and Atlanta. With their squad fully healthy, Charlotte’s a playoff team, but being down their two best players definitely takes them down a peg. They deserve props that they haven’t rolled over since losing those two, but sadly they’re nowhere near as good as they were with their whole squad. Their schedule is easy enough that it shouldn’t knock them out of the play-in. If LaMelo and Hayward are back by then, then it’s hard not seeing the Hornets get into the postseason.

Indiana Pacers (26-29)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East Teams: 11

It hasn’t been talked about enough how injuries have really shaken up Indiana’s season. TJ Warren’s foot injury was a substantial season-long setback and Caris Levert’s cancer, as miraculous of a story as that was, was another prolonged absence. Overall, Indiana’s injuries have led to a rather underachieving season compared to past results. Luckily their schedule for the rest of the season shouldn’t be too tough, so making the play-in seems realistic.

Outside Looking In

*One of these teams will get the play-in as the 10th seed.

Toronto Raptors (23-34)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: Seven

That’s right, the same Raptors, who only weeks ago were in serious talks to trade Kyle Lowry to the highest bidder, have suddenly found themselves in the fight for the final spot for the play-in. It’s not that they’ve suddenly turned it all around. It’s that the competition is too weak for them to bow out completely. Their schedule may allow them to go all-in on the tank, but maybe one last hurrah with the franchise’s greatest player isn’t the worst way to go.

Chicago Bulls (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Seven
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: 16

Good news: Nikola Vucevic looks like he’s fitting in splendidly. Bad news: The team has been on a downward spiral since his (and others) acquisition. Chicago has only won four of their last 13 games since the trade deadline and their remaining schedule is not going to be a breeze. On paper, they should be a shoo-in for the 10th seed, but the roster holes right now appear to be too glaring for Chicago to take the next step. If they don’t at the very least make the play-in, that’s not going to be a good look after all the moves they made.

Washington Wizards (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Five
Games Against East Teams: 10

Remember when Washington was one of the worst teams in the league record-wise? And how they managed to only slightly improve themselves over the course of the season? Well, apparently that was enough to get them into the conversation for the play-in because, lo and behold, they’re now tied with Chicago for that 10th seed. It gets better too. They only face two tough challenges from here on out – Lakers and Bucks – but after that, it’s honestly easy enough that they might be the favorite to get that last play-in spot.

Cleveland Cavaliers (20-36)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams over .500: Six
Games Against East Teams: 12

This sounds the most ludicrous seeing how the Cavs are currently the East’s 13th seed, but being three games behind Chicago while facing only six teams over .500 gives them a fighting chance. If the Cavaliers are actually able to get the play-in, that’s a big stepping stone for their future. It’s an accomplishment to build off of in an era with no LeBron James to speak of, which they haven’t been able to do since Friends was on the air.

As you can see, the play-in has, in a way, brought a new dimension to the NBA season. In any previous season (excluding the last one) no one would bat an eye at the 10 through 13 seeds. Their season at this point would be all but done and no one would care, but because of the possibility of going to a play-in tournament, teams suddenly have the chance to make something of what usually would have been a lost season.

Some teams may get annoyed by it because their time is coming to a close and there’s no need to delay the inevitable. For others, the play-in signifies that it could just be the beginning.

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