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NBA Daily: Jimmy Butler, The Difference-Maker In Minnesota

The arrival of Jimmy Butler has turned the Minnesota Timberwolves into a team to watch out for, and Tom Thibodeau knows why.

Ben Nadeau

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Through half a season, Jimmy Butler has been exactly what the Minnesota Timberwolves needed — and more.

If the Timberwolves match their current pace — 26-16 and out in front in the Northwest Division — then the franchise will notch their first 50-win season since 2003-04. Beyond making the Western Conference Finals, it was also the last time Minnesota made the postseason at all, anchored by Kevin Garnett’s monstrous, MVP-winning campaign. That season, Garnett tallied a remarkable 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game — all averages that now stand as his career-highs after 21 years in the NBA.

Today, those are lofty shoes for any superstar to step into, but head coach Tom Thibodeau hasn’t been shy about praising his new franchise centerpiece.

“[Jimmy Butler has] played unbelievable, he’s playing at an MVP-level and he’s changed everything for us,” Thibodeau said. “Like his drive, it’s not really what he’s saying, it’s what he’s doing. And for me, it’s just watching his growth. He’s a perennial All-Star, All-NBA, an Olympian, all those things, but the biggest area of growth has been his leadership.

“I think the mark of a great player is not only to do great things himself but to also bring the best out of all his teammates and he’s done that.”

At 28 years old, Butler is averaging 21.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.9 steals over a staggering 36.9 minutes per game. As the franchise’s new grizzled veteran, Butler had been tasked with reversing the fate of a Timberwolves’ roster that ranked 26th in 2016-17 for defensive efficiency at 109.1. After shipping off Ricky Rubio for a single first-round selection, signing prominent free agents Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson and trading Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn for Butler last summer, Minnesota had an entirely new identity to shape around the remaining pieces.

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins were two of those teammates, and both are essential to Minnesota’s quest toward permanent revival. Towns and Wiggins, both 22 years of age, were back-to-back No. 1 overall picks and Rookie of the Year winners in consecutive seasons — but despite some significant individual achievements, the duo has come up empty-handed in terms of team success thus far.

For Towns and Wiggins, Butler’s much-needed arrival meant giving up some touches on the offensive end, but for a team that is already just five wins behind their total from last season, the trade-off appears to have been well worth it.

“I think whatever your situation is, you have to make the most of it. I think the most important thing is getting the playing time,” Thibodeau said. “In Chicago, we had Jimmy Butler, we had a 60-win team, so he didn’t play a lot and he came in the lockout season — so no practice, no summer league — but he still found his way. And so for Karl and Andrew, it’s a lot different — it was a team that wasn’t very good, so they were able to play through their mistakes and learn that way.

“Now as the team has gotten better — and Butler has done so many amazing things for us, just to change our organization — I think they’re sacrificing some of their individual statistics but their contributions to winning are far greater this year than they were last year.”

As usual, Thibodeau is correct.

Both players are averaging about five points less than they did last season, but with their summer acquisitions, the overall results have been positive. The Timberwolves are 7th in scoring (108.4), 5th in field goal percentage (47.5 percent) and 4th in offensive rating (110.2), in some cases only trailing a group of the NBA’s perennial contenders. The defensive side of things is where Minnesota has struggled, and the franchise carries a middling 19th-rated defensive efficiency of 106.8, slotted in around many non-playoff teams. As Thibodeau said recently, “Play to your strengths, cover up your weaknesses.” The unit has improved in recent weeks — plus, they rank 3rd in steals per game at 8.9 — but it’s still not enough to inspire confidence against conference powerhouses like the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets quite yet.

While Towns’ defensive plus-minus is currently at 1.4, which would be a career-high, it’s also an undeniable bounceback after posting a miserable 0.2 in that category last season. Likewise, Wiggins definitely still has work to do, but he’s no longer worthy of FiveThirtyEight’s “Least Defensive Player” title and that’s a worthy start to the climb in of itself. Hailed as a defensive guru, Thibodeau isn’t fully satisfied with the pair but understands that they’ve begun to swing to pendulum back the other way.

“I know how passionate Karl is about the game and how hard he’s working, so I see the improvement defensively,” Thibodeau said. “I think right now, we’re not where we want to be, but he’s blocking shots, he’s getting a lot of deflections, he’s seeing things better . . . Obviously, you’re going to be a lot better playing against a team or player the 40th time than you were the first time.

“I think he’ll continue to grow, I feel the same way about [Wiggins],” Thibodeau continued. “It has to become important to do it on every possession and can’t take plays off or you can’t take a game off. Just understanding what goes into it is really important.”

Butler, who was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team three consecutive seasons from 2013-16, has undeniably been a catalyst for transformation in Minnesota, both for those new and old. Still, Thibodeau knows the Timberwolves have a long way to go.

Thibodeau will often talk about the Warriors’ rise to prominence, noting that their uptick in defense is what took them from just prolific scorers to back-to-back-to-back NBA Finals. The Timberwolves — and every other team for that matter — have tried to emulate the Warriors’ blueprint and come up empty-handed. But teams are always evolving, and it’s simply unreasonable to believe that adding Butler and Gibson would immediately build a brick wall for the opposition to fruitlessly run through.

Crafting an elite defense takes time, and Thibodeau, the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2011, is certainly no stranger. In fact, Thibodeau led the Bulls — along with Butler, Gibson and prime Luol Deng and Joakim Noah — to finishes in the top five for defensive rating in four consecutive seasons from 2010-14 (1st, 1st, 5th and 2nd). There’s room to grow in Minnesota and Thibodeau hopes that this is just the beginning.

“[With] Boston, when Kevin, Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen] left, they went through a little bit of a lull,” Thibodeau said. “Then they got the defense going again and there were steps that they made along the way, so I think we have to do the same thing. We have to understand how important it is to play defense and that’s why I think Jimmy and Taj have really helped our younger players.”

Adding Gibson to teach Towns the intricacies of hard-nosed defense was always going to be key, but Butler is still the linchpin in Minnesota. Just as Garnett’s growth once coincided with the strongest stretch of basketball in Timberwolves history, Butler is the leader that can recreate those past successes for the franchise. And just as the Celtics needed Garnett’s fiery passion to put that 2007-08 roster over the top on the defensive end, Butler can be that guy too.

When asked about Butler and his expectations following that offseason blockbuster, perhaps inspired by his visit to the TD Garden — where he was the associate head coach from 2007-10 — Thibodeau didn’t shy away from drawing comparisons to those Celtics teams once again.

“We were fortunate, we had Kevin, Paul and Ray, and they weren’t gonna let anything get in the way of the team winning a championship,” Thibodeau recalled. “And it wasn’t necessarily the things they said, it was more what they did. Like when we got here, those three guys, every practice, they were leaders — they were the first ones up in every drill, they didn’t want to take practice off, they weren’t gonna let anything get in the way of winning a championship.”

After 42 games, it’s clear how much Butler has done for this Minnesota squad. They’ll likely surpass their win total from last season sometime this month, and although the Timberwolves are not yet a defensive juggernaut, it’s headed in the right direction. By continuing to defensively craft Towns and Wiggins, Butler — with the help of Gibson, of course — has galvanized a talented, blossoming team in Minnesota. Only time will tell if Butler can help the Timberwolves reach new heights, but Thibodeau has found his spiritual successor to Kevin Garnett and things appear brighter than ever.

After all, in Thibodeau’s own words, it’s not what leaders say, it’s what they do.

And Jimmy Butler is doing everything.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Kawhi Leonard Would Look Good In a Knicks Uniform… In 2019

The Knicks need to take a page out of the Sixers’ book… and trust the process.

Moke Hamilton

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Don’t get me wrong, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving would both look great in New York Knick uniforms. Just not now.

Hey, let’s be frank—only a fool does the same thing over and over and expects different results.

Seven years ago, the Knicks the made mistake of trading their farm for a superstar caliber small forward. His name is Carmelo Anthony, and we all know how that story ended.

If you want to make the argument that Leonard is a better player than Anthony was at 27 years old, that’s your right. I won’t argue with you. But one thing that not even Max Kellerman could find a way to argue is that smart teams simply don’t trade assets for players they could ultimately end up getting for free. That’s why Paul George spent last season flanking Russell Westbrook instead of arguing with LaVar Ball.

Sure, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka haven’t been on the job very long, but if there’s one thing they’ve already shown us is that they’re no newbies. That’s exactly why LeBron James is going to take his talents to Los Angeles in July. But we’ll save that discussion for next week.

As it stands, the Knicks have little aside from Kristaps Porzinigis going for them. With the Latvian unicorn expected to miss the majority of next season, they’ll probably have another lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

In other words, one year from now, the Knicks will have four of their own lottery picks under contract—Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina, and whichever players they will have selected in 2018 and 2019. Between now and then, the team would be best served scouring the G-League and overseas markets to find cheap help that can contribute at the NBA level.

That type of prudent management will not only help the Knicks in the long run, it will go a long way toward convincing soon-to-be free agents and player agents that Scott Perry and his staff actually know what they’re doing.

Know who will be free agents in July 2019?

If you answered Kawhi Leonard, you’re correct, but you only get partial credit.

The full answer is Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving, the latter of whom has been consistently rumored as having real interest in signing with the Knicks when he’s able to  test the market next July. Depending on who you ask, there does seem to be a genuine level of concern that Irving could opt to take his talents elsewhere and if Irving is truly in search of building a legacy, one could fairly conclude that there has to be some level of intrigue.

Irving grew up in the shadows of Madison Square Garden and knows better than most what winning in New York City would do for his legacy. At the end of the day, would one championship in New York make Irving a legendary figure among the likes of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?

Maybe not, but one thing we can call agree on is that winning in a single championship in New York would do much more for Irving than winning a single championship in Cleveland or even a single title in Boston.

As it stands, fair or not, history will always look at Irving as the “other” player on James’ championship Cavaliers team even though he was the one who made the biggest shot of James’ career.

And with the success of the Celtics this past season, truth be told, Irving helping lead the Celtics to a championship with the team’s current core in place wouldn’t necessarily cement his legacy in the way it would have had we not seen Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown show signs of being franchise-caliber players.

Because Irving is a shoot-first guard, he’s (rather unfairly) earned a reputation of someone who doesn’t make his teammates better. Because of the circumstances, he’s now in a bit of a catch-22. He’ll get less of the credit than he’ll deserve if the Celtics manage to win an NBA title and more of the blame than he’ll deserve if they fail to.

Kemba Walker—the only “true” All-Star caliber New Yorker in the NBA—and Long Island product Tobias Harris will also each be free come July 2019. Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kevin Love and Nikola Vucevic, also.

It’d be one thing if the Knicks were one piece away from potentially winning the Eastern Conference, but with or without Kawhi Leonard, they’re light years away.

What makes most sense for the Knicks is to continue to stay the course, manage their cap intelligently, hit home runs with each of their next two lottery picks and try to find a way to trade Courtney Lee and Joakim Noah.

Depending on what happens with Kristaps Porzingis, it’s very possible that the Knicks could find themselves with enough cap room to sign two maximum-salaried free agents. Between now and then, they’d also have the opportunity to add a free attractive young pieces that would likely go a long way toward convincing players of Leonard’s ilk to entrust his legacy to the capable hands of the front office.

In other words, if the Knicks have truly learned anything from the futility of their recent past, it’s that they should try to be more like Magic Johnson’s Lakers than like the Knicks we’ve come to know.

Believe it or not, if the Knicks play their card rights and decide to stay the course and patiently rebuild as opposed to splurging for minimal gains, the unthinkable could happen…

They may actually prove themselves worthy of the attention of a marquee free agent.

Or, in this case, two of them.

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Ranking the Free Agents – Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues to evaluate the top free agents at each position. David Yapkowitz breaks down the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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This week at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at the top free agents set to the open market in just a few weeks. We’ve already covered the point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards. Now we check in with the power forwards.

There may only be a few power forwards who can probably expect a max or near max deal this summer, but there are quite a few guys that, for the right price, can end up being difference makers on a team next season.

Before getting into the actual free agents, here’s a look at what the salary cap numbers project to be. The NBA’s salary cap is expected to jump to $101 million this offseason. Based on that, here are the projected numbers for max contracts:

$25,250,000 for players with 0-6 years of experience
$30,300,000 for players with 7-9 years of experience
$35,350,000 for players with 10+ years of experience

Max/Near Max Guys

Julius Randle* – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Year’s Salary: $4,149,242

Julius Randle is definitely in line for a bigger payday this summer. The fourth-year forward turned in his best NBA season yet and was arguably the Lakers best player for most of the year. He played in all 82 games with 49 starts.

He put up career-high numbers across the board with 16.1 points per game on 55.8 percent shooting from the field. Most of Randle’s scoring comes in the paint where his “bully” ball type game has proven quite effective. He has an improving jump shot and at 23 years old, he still has his best years ahead of him.

He will be a restricted free agent, giving the Lakers the ability to match any offer he receives, but doing so could come at the expense of signing two max-level free agents as has been the team’s plan. It’s going to be an interesting dilemma for the Lakers as Randle most likely will attract interest right away from potential suitors thus forcing the Lakers hand early on in free agency.

Aaron Gordon* – Orlando Magic – Last Year’s Salary: $5,504,420

Aaron Gordon will also most likely receive a max or near max contract his summer. Early in the season when the Orlando Magic started out hot, Gordon was playing like an All-Star and even a borderline MVP candidate.

The Magic’s play then went rapidly south, but Gordon finished the season averaging 17.6 points per game, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists, all career-highs. At the beginning of the season, he displayed a much improved three-point shot. The Magic have tried him at small forward before, but he’s a natural at power forward.

Gordon is also a restricted free agent allowing the Magic to match any offer. At age 22, he should also have his best years ahead of him. For a team like the Magic, in need of talent and quality young players, re-signing Gordon is probably ideal. But it’s also important to note that the Magic have a newer front office in place, one that did not draft Gordon. It’s also possible that John Hammond and Jeff Weltman might want to shape the roster in their vision.

Above Mid-Level Guys

Jabari Parker* – Milwaukee Bucks – Last Season’s Salary: $6,782,392

Jabari Parker is perhaps one of the most interesting and intriguing names on the free agent market. A former No. 2 overall pick, as a rookie Parker looked like he was definitely part of the Bucks growing young core. Unfortunately for him, injuries struck him hard as he suffered two ACL tears during a three-year period.

This season, he struggled a bit to find a role with the Bucks. There’s no question that if he’s healthy, he’d be quite an asset to any team. He represents the new breed of power forward with a perimeter game. Prior to his injuries, he’d almost assuredly be a max contract guy. It’s a bit difficult to imagine any team willing to pay him anywhere close to that now.

The Bucks have the option to match any contract offer he gets as he is a restricted free agent. It’s conceivable that they would do so as it will probably take a massive offer to pry Parker away from the Bucks. It’s unlikely that any team is willing to go that high.

Thaddeus Young** – Indiana Pacers – Last Season’s Salary: $14,796,348

Thaddeus Young could be another intriguing power forward on the free agent market. The thing with Young is he has a player option he could choose to exercise and become a free agent. Never an All-Star, Young has been a steady and dependable player his entire career.

His numbers were a bit under his career averages this season. He put up 11.8 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting from the field and he pulled down 6.3 rebounds. Nevertheless, he remained an important part of the Pacers rotation, especially on the defensive end.

Should he hit the open market, there likely wouldn’t be any shortage of suitors.

Derrick Favors – Utah Jazz – Last Season’s Salary: $12,000,000

Ed Davis – Portland Trail Blazers – Last Season’s Salary: $6,352,531

Montrezl Harrell* – Los Angeles Clippers – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Mid-Level Or Below Guys

Mike Scott – Washington Wizards – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Ersan Ilyasova – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Season’s Salary: $357,454

Trevor Booker – Indiana Pacers – Last Season’s Salary: $332,516

David West – Golden State Warriors – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Nemanja Bjelica* – Minnesota Timberwolves – Last Season’s Salary: $3,949,999

Kevon Looney – Golden State Warriors – Last Season’s Salary: $1,471,382

Mike Muscala** – Atlanta Hawks – Last Season’s Salary: $5,000,000

Amir Johnson – Philadelphia 76ers – Last Season’s Salary: $11,000,000

Channing Frye – Los Angeles Lakers – Last Season’s Salary: $7,420,912

Quincy Acy – Brooklyn Nets – Last Season’s Salary: $1,709,538

*Qualifying Offer (If made, the player becomes a restricted free agent.)
**Player Option (The player has the choice of whether to opt-in for another year with his current team or opt-out to become an unrestricted free agent.)

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NBA

NBA Daily: Four International Prospects Worth Stashing

While much of the international buzz has fallen on Luka Dončić, there are four other overseas prospects worth keeping your eye on.

Ben Nadeau

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Image courtesty of eurohoops.net

Without fail, mock drafts come and go all spring with little mention of potential international draftees. It makes perfect sense. Not every overseas athlete can get the buzz of Real Madrid’s Luka Dončić — or, in most cases, even that of Élie Okobo and Džanan Musa, two international prospects with decent chances of going in the first round next week. Still, would it surprise you to know that seven international draftees were taken in the second round in 2017? Or that 2016 went one better and reached eight? In fact, 2015 saw 10 foreign-born prospects get selected after pick No. 30 — so this is a trend, not an aberration.

Granted, a handful of those draftees haven’t and will not ever play meaningful NBA minutes — but the point still very much stands. However, outside of those aforementioned three — Dončić, Okobo and Musa — even the most-educated of fans would be hard-pressed to rattle off four more transatlantic options. Luckily, Basketball Insiders has your back. Memorize these easily-digestible profiles to impress your friends and family during the NBA Draft — you can thank us later.

Additionally, three of these four players were recently ranked in Basketball Insiders’ latest 60-pick mock draft. For more insight, check out our consensus mock drafts here as well.

Isaac Bonga, Germany — Fraport Skyliners
Age: 18 — Height: 6-foot-9 — Position: SG/SF
Last Mock Rank: No. 39 to Philadelphia

By most accounts, Bonga will be drafted next week — so, admittedly, he’s not the deepest cut on this list. But if the German isn’t on many casual radars just yet, he should be soon enough. His statistics are hardly remarkable — Bonga averaged just six points, three rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in 2017-18 — but his physical measurements project him as a difference-maker. Standing at 6-foot-9, the 18-year-old talent has some legitimate playmaking abilities already. Of course, overseas highlight reels have proven to be misleading time and time again — but watch this timestamped move from last summer’s FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup and try not to get too excited.

Comparing Bonga to other size-aided court generals is weak at best, but he also boasts a seven-foot wingspan, shoots 92.1 percent from the free throw line and his on-court vision is noteworthy for a teenager. Bonga’s best individual performance of the season came against Eisbären Bremerhaven, where he notched 16 points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks on 2-for-2 from three-point range. Given his current stature, he won’t be limited to just defending one or two positions if he bulks up over the next couple years either. There’s no guarantee that Bonga will make it professionally in America, but there are some compelling reasons to take a wait-and-see approach with this capable youngster.

Rodions Kurucs, Latvia — FC Barcelona
Age: 20 Height: 6-foot-9 Position: SF
Last Mock Rank: No. 37 to Sacramento

Originally, Kurucs had considered coming over last season after scoring 9.5 points per game for FC Barcelona II. Although raw, the then-19-year-old was a projected late first-rounder for much of the workout process — but he ultimately opted to head back to Spain for another year. In 2017-18, his counting statistics improved nominally, but he finally spent time with FC Barcelona, one of Europe’s top clubs. Unfortunately, that’s also where things begin to get a bit tricky.

Between his allegedly expensive buyout and Barcelona freely swapping Kurucs between their two clubs to keep him away from visiting scouts, the Latvian is now widely seen as a second-round pick across the board. He had until June 11 to withdraw his name, but — perhaps knowing that things will forever remain difficult in Spain — is just going to make the most of a bad situation. Even with his up-and-downs, Kurucs is often a crafty scorer that can go both inside and outside with the ball.

Although Kurucs has two-way potential, make no mistake, the offense is the prospect’s bread and butter. As we’ve learned in recent years, the NBA will always find room for deadeye shooters and that’s what Kurucs may eventually bring to the table. The talent is here for Kurucs but his long-term NBA future likely depends on which franchise he lands with.

Issuf Sanon, Ukraine — Petrol Olimpija
Age: 18 — Height: 6-foot-3 — Position: G
Last Mock Rank: No. 57 to Oklahoma City

Qualifying as one of the more under the radar options, Sanon is a Ukrainian baller currently playing for Petrol Olimpija in Slovenia. In 2017-18, Sanon averaged six points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals over 20.2 minutes per game and presently projects as a combo guard. Although his professional moments have offered glimpses of an NBA-worthy path, Sanon made his biggest mark last summer at the FIBA U18 European Championship. In what would become his breakout tournament, Sanon averaged 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists over seven games.

During a slim two-point defeat to Turkey in the Round of 16, Sanon tallied 27 points, five rebounds, four assists, three steals and made three of his five attempts from deep. He’ll need to continue developing at the three-point line — he shot just 29.3 percent this season — but Sanon looks like he could be a viable 3-and-D candidate down the road. That said, like many international second-rounders, it’s unlikely that Sanon will come over for a few years at least. But if he keeps developing at this rate, drafting and stashing Sanon would be a shrewd move for any franchise.

Arnoldas Kulboka, Lithuania — Capo d’Orlando
Age: 20 — Height: 6-foot-9 — Position: F
Last Mock Rank: Unranked

Last but not least, there’s Arnoldas Kulboka — a long-ranged assassin with the numbers to back it up. In 2017-18, Kulboka went on loan to Capo d’Orlando of Serie A, a club with which he quickly found success. He was even named Best Young Player in the Basketball Champions League, a new, FIBA-led, European-wide competition. At the 2017 U19 Basketball World Cup, Kulboka averaged 13.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and two assists over seven games. As an athletic, microwavable shooter, Kulboka naturally goes through bouts of inconsistency — but when he’s on, the Lithuanian appears like a tremendous prospect. In the tournament opener against Germany, Kulboka dropped 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists on 5-for-8 from downtown. What else could you want?

On the flip side, during Lithuania’s quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Italy, Kulboka scored just five points on 1-for-15 shooting — so there’s certainly still room to improve. Given his NBA-ready range and his perfect fit in a modern offensive system, those facets alone make Kulboka worth considering. Regardless, success at the international level from an early age is not always an indicator of future achievements, that much should be obvious. But for a mid-to-late second rounder, franchises could do far worse than stashing Kulboka.

While there’s no promise that everybody on this list will even join the NBA someday, they’ve all proved that their names should be known heading into draft week. From former FIBA standouts to those with positionless potential, these four overseas standouts could be difference-makers in the forthcoming years.

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