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NBA Saturday: Randle Leading Kentucky, Helping Stock

Julius Randle has led the Kentucky Wildcats to the Elite Eight and helped his draft stock in the process. … Frustrated Indiana Pacers can’t end slump

Alex Kennedy

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Randle Leading Kentucky, Helping Stock

The Kentucky Wildcats are in the Elite Eight after defeating the defending champion Louisville Cardinals, 74-69, on Friday night. By advancing this far, Kentucky has turned around a roller-coaster season that, up until the tournament, was extremely disappointing.

Entering the season, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the nation and there was some debate over whether the team could go undefeated. However, the Wildcats ended up losing 10 games (including several losses to unranked teams) and ultimately fell out of the top 25 poll in mid-March. Kentucky’s young roster struggled throughout the campaign after initially being described as the greatest recruiting class of all-time, and earned an eight-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

However, none of that matters now, as the Wildcats are three wins away from a national championship. The adversity that Kentucky faced earlier in the season helped them become the battle-tested team they are today, and their freshmen have matured and improved significantly since the start of the year.

Julius Randle, the freshman forward who has been the team’s catalyst throughout the tournament, is thrilled that the squad is finally living up to the lofty expectations set for this team.

“In a way, I think we have [rewritten the history of this team],” Randle said. “We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was. It’s a new season, the postseason. That’s really all we can worry about, survive and advance, and we’ve got to take one game at a time. We carried momentum from the SEC Tournament to the NCAA Tournament, and we’re just taking it a game at a time.

“We just have committed to each other on both ends of the floor. Our chemistry is a lot better, and we’ve listened to Coach. He’s made our roles really simple and we’ve just listened to him and it’s kind of working out for us.”

Randle has been tremendous during the tournament, averaging 15.6 points and 12.3 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field. His 23 double-doubles this season leads all Division I players, and he’s just the second freshman in NCAA history to have that many double-doubles in a season (the other being Michael Beasley, who had 28 in 2008). In addition to scoring and rebounding, Randle has also done a good job creating for his teammates, as evidenced by his six assists in Kentucky’s upset win over Wichita State. Rather than taking on double teams and putting up bad shots, Randle is taking what the defense gives him and making the right play more often than not.

This was the case in the final minute of Kentucky’s game against Louisville, when Randle spun into a double team and delivered a perfect pass to Aaron Harrison, who hit a three-point shot for the go-ahead score. Moments later, Randle hit two clutch free throws to seal the win for the Wildcats. After the game, Kentucky head coach John Calipari praised Randle’s decision making and pointed out that the clutch assist was an example of just how much his star player had grown in recent weeks.

“I look at Julius where they’re running at him, the biggest play that Julius made is the pass for three instead of shooting it,” Calipari said. “Now three weeks ago, he would have shot a hook to try to get that at the basket.  Now, he’s just playing the game as it comes. … They’re maturing right before our eyes. They’ve surrendered to the team. It’s all about helping your teammate get better and winning games.”

“Coach has done a good job of defining my role,” Randle said. “When the lane [is] open, sometimes that’s what you got to do, just do your best to get to the basket. But at the same time, I love to create for other people.”

Randle had 15 points and 12 rebounds against Louisville and after the game, Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino said that the freshman power forward was the main reason Kentucky came away with the victory.

“The major factor,” Pitino said, “was the way Randle played on the backboard.”

With Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart and Doug McDermott among others sitting at home, Randle is the top NBA prospect remaining in the tournament. Throughout the season, Randle has been in the shadow of Wiggins, Parker and Embiid, usually being mentioned as a potential top-five pick in the 2014 NBA Draft but rarely being included in the debate over who will go first overall. The same thing happened during high school recruiting, when Wiggins and Parker were heralded as the next big things while Randle was ranked as the third best player in the class and treated as if he were a notch below the top two.

Like Wiggins and Parker, Randle is 19 years old and has a ridiculous amount of potential. Unlike Wiggins and Parker, Randle stepped up in the tournament and had some of his best games of the season while playing on college basketball’s biggest stage. When asked how he has been able to ignore the pressure and deliver these clutch performances, Randle downplayed his heroics.

“I don’t really look at it as pressure,” Randle said. “I know that I have great teammates and they have my back out there, so I’m really not even worried about it. Like Coach always says, ‘Don’t worry about winning or losing, just go out there and play.’ Just seeing us getting better each game is encouraging in itself. I know that I have teammates who, when a challenge presents itself, will rise to the challenge. … I didn’t really feel any pressure. I really wasn’t worried about where this game could take us, I was just focused on the game and the game plan that Coach had for us. That was really all my focus; I wasn’t really worried about winning or losing.

NBA executives have been impressed with Randle’s recent production, and his draft stock has increased with Kentucky’s postseason run. Randle has drawn comparisons to Zach Randolph and Paul Millsap, and he has confirmed that he could be a franchise-changing player at the next level. One NBA scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, recently praised Randle’s game to Basketball Insiders.

He’s a man, and he won’t get pushed around by other players,” said the Eastern Conference scout. “He has the ability to face up and take guys off of the dribble. Right now, he’s left-hand dominant, so he must work on his right hand and keep improving his jumper if he wants to take the next step and really wreak havoc. He should be able to play in the league for a really long time, but the question is how good will he be? People around the league are really interested to see how he measures out – how tall and how long he is. When I look at Randle, I see some Jamal Mashburn and some Paul Millsap.”

Randle will try to continue Kentucky’s incredible run on Sunday, when the Wildcats take on the two-seeded Michigan Wolverines.

“All of the adversity we have been through all season, just to see us coming together as a team and getting better each game and finally get big wins, we just enjoyed it,” Randle said. “Everybody’s happy and we just have to keep building on it.”

The Wildcats had some growing pains throughout the season, but that’s to be expected with such an inexperienced group. Only three players on Kentucky’s roster have been in the tournament before, seldom-used guards Jon Hood, Brian Long and Jarrod Polson.

“Every team I’ve ever coached, I am hard on,” Calipari said. “I push them. I drive them. This team I was hard probably longer than other teams, but from body language to habits to other things, you couldn’t cheer them on those things. They were not acceptable. Now, you’re seeing a team that’s playing more together, that shows less emotion.  And people always say I coach young teams – I’ve never coached five freshmen, so it’s taken longer. But it doesn’t matter that it took longer, it’s just that they’re starting to get it. … I am proud of them.  I am enjoying coaching this team.  I am able to do less now.  I’ve been able to be more of a cheerleader. They are playing their best basketball.

“If this was a 25‑game season… thank goodness it was a 30‑game season, so we had five more games to get this thing right and get the plane down before the runway ran out and we were in grass.”

The important thing is that Kentucky has figured things out and started clicking at the perfect time. Randle has been a big reason for that, and the talented forward is finally getting the recognition that he deserves.

Frustrated Pacers Can’t End Slump

The Indiana Pacers are tired of losing. On top of that, they’re tired of talking about losing. The team has dropped four of their last six games, and they are 8-8 in March.

The Pacers thought they had snapped out of their recent slump when they defeated the Miami HEAT on Wednesday night, but then they followed up that victory with a disappointing 91-78 loss to the Washington Wizards last night. After the game, Indiana’s players were clearly frustrated.

“I don’t know,” Roy Hibbert said when asked about the Pacers’ struggles. “We’re tired of talking about it and we’ve been in this rut for a month. I don’t know. You take one step forward and three steps back. One win, then we play like this. I don’t have a sound bite for you.”

“It is frustrating, because we know what to do,” Paul George said. “We know who we are, we know how much we put in to get to where we are at. We are just not taking care of the opportunity. We showed spurts that we can be that team. We just have to maintain the consistency with it.”

“At this moment, we look vulnerable,” David West said. “We look like teams can just come at us. Again, it’s because we don’t play a good brand of basketball. .. We’re verbalizing it, we talked about it somewhat after the game. We got to get it. We feel like we got enough pieces. We’ve got to get it. We get up for the Miami [HEAT], get up for the Chicago Bulls, and then come out and lay donuts against the Wizards and these other teams. We’ve got to get it.”

Indiana’s problems are mainly on the offensive end of the floor. In their last three losses, they’ve scored 78 points against Washington, 77 points against Chicago and 71 points against Memphis. The Pacers are an elite defensive squad, but that kind of offense isn’t going to lead to wins and the team understands that.

“We have to keep improving our offensive execution, create open shots, and then we have to make shots,” Frank Vogel said. “We are creating shots on poor shooting nights, so we have to make shots. I thought we came out with great energy, we were ready to play, and the lack of shot-making took our spirits a little bit.”

“We’re just not moving the ball and getting everybody involved,” Hibbert said, after taking just eight shots. “I mean, you could rehearse stuff for the past month and it’ll tell you what our problems are.”

The Pacers have nine games remaining on their schedule, with contests against elite teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Miami HEAT and Oklahoma City Thunder and contests against non-playoff teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons.

Time is running out for Indiana to end this slump in the regular season, and they certainly don’t want to be playing like this in the postseason. This is a team with championship aspirations and a legitimate shot at hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. But you’d never know it from watching the Pacers in recent weeks, and that’s very concerning for Indiana.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Saturday: Rankings, Lists, and Reporters Aren’t All That Bad

With lists and reporters credibility under fire, it’s important to remember that these are just subjective opinions.

Dennis Chambers

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Every year when the NBA season is just around the corner, major media outlets look to drum up the conversation heading into opening night by releasing a list of the top players in the league for the upcoming campaign.

Nobody usually has any qualms with the very top. It most likely follows in some order of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, and then the rest of the league’s brightest stars follow suit.

However, every so often, an aging star will begin his fall from grace in a particular list, and people will rant and rave about the ridiculousness of where that guy landed.

Obviously, that’s the point.

Carmelo Anthony landed No. 64 on ESPN’s Top 100 Players list earlier this week, and Twitter lost its collective mind. It certainly didn’t help that rookie Lonzo Ball came in just one place ahead of Anthony, either. At this stage of his career, Anthony isn’t what he once was. It doesn’t help that the New York Knicks are somewhat of a dumpster fire, but nevertheless, Anthony is certainly on the back nine of his career. That being said, there still probably aren’t 63 better players than Anthony in the entire league. When push comes to shove, you know Melo is more than capable of getting your team a bucket.

But, again, that’s the point of these lists. To get people talking.

As soon as news of Anthony’s misplacement hit social media, everyone was up in arms. Players were scoffing at the disrespect on Twitter, writers and analysts chimed in as well, and even Melo had his own piece to say on the matter.

Amid all of the usual water cooler banter that takes place whenever a hot-button topic rises up like this one, Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum added his interesting two cents.

Granted, McCollum has a point that throughout the vast landscape that is sports reporting, there are definitely some watered down voices that all too often get their say, and in turn, diminish the reputation of the whole. But just because a vague ranking system that produced a hot-take list took over the news cycle on that particular day doesn’t automatically warrant the complete dismissal of what NBA reporters do.

Despite the obvious imperfections of ranking lists, there are some positive, and well thought out, pieces floating around the internet. Among these, Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 features the joint effort of Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney. Instead of just slapping on a fancy graphic and using some cherry-picked statistics like the list that had everyone on Twitter irate, Golliver and Mahoney take a deep dive, multiple paragraphs deep, into each player’s ranking and why they land where they do. Yes, while the position each player lands on the list is still subject to the opinion of Mahoney and Golliver, the two reporters take a sound approach to reach their conclusion and then relay that to the reader. It isn’t just, “Here’s the player, deal with it,” like the ESPN list tends to do, more or less. Another step further, Mahoney and Golliver attach their initials to each player they rank, ultimately holding themselves accountable for when someone on the internet digs up the list retroactively with 20/20 vision.

 

When a certain level of disagreement comes from a particular opinion of a reporter, or media outlet in this case, those in the accused or offended field always take immediate refuge behind the idea that their accusers’ opinion holds no weight because they’ve never competed at the highest level like the targeted athlete.

Yes, that is true, for the most part. Most reporters aren’t world class athletes. That’s probably why they’re reporters. But the narrative that they can’t be educated, or provide insight on whatever they’re reporting, is nonsense. At that rate, should felons be the only ones allowed to report on a crime beat? How about politicians reporting on the White House? Should we just let rain tell us the weather report every day?

See how ridiculous that sounds?

Boiled down to their core, rankings and lists are the epitome of subjectivity. Not everyone will always agree on every given opinion, that much is obvious. But in this day and age, there are still countless individuals and outlets that produce thoughtful opinion; seek them out. Griping over the differing judgement of a bad few, and in turn condemning the whole, helps no one.

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NBA Saturday: Reforming The Lottery Won’t Add Parity to The NBA

The NBA is considering a reform of the draft lottery to disincentivize tanking, but it won’t add parity.

Dennis Chambers

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With one simple WojBomb Thursday afternoon, the league’s intentions to overhaul the draft lottery system became known once again.

Adrian Wojnarowski, of ESPN, reported that the NBA is aggressively pursuing draft lottery reform that could be voted into legislation and instituted by the 2019 draft.”

In its current construct, the NBA lottery is comprised of every team in the league that fails to make the playoffs. Those teams then have a specific percentage chance to win the lottery based off of their record. The team that finishes with the worst record in a given season is awarded a 25 percent chance at the top pick, while the second and third worst teams have 19.9 and 15.6 percent chances, respectively.

What the NBA’s competition committee, comprised of league general managers and coaches, is proposing is making the percentage to win the lottery even among the teams with the three worst records in the league.

Essentially, this move is being brought forth as another attempt to extinguish reward for losing — and more importantly, tanking.

The main reason the NBA would look to rid the league of tanking franchises is obviously to keep competition at its highest level. If teams are outright losing on purpose, or doing so with a “wink wink” mentality like the Philadelphia 76ers have employed in recent years, the league’s overall product becomes watered down.

But changing the lottery system doesn’t help prevent disparity in the NBA. In fact, it encourages it.

Throughout the entirety of the league’s existence, team’s have ridden the backs of star players to NBA championships. In order to get that elusive ring, having a franchise player — or multiple franchise players — is a team’s best bet. However, getting players of that caliber on your team is easier said than done. There are few routes to acquiring a locked in franchise talents. First, a team could draft a player that becomes a star (their best bet at landing that player would come at the top of the draft, naturally). A team could also trade for an already established star (though that takes assets, usually draft pick compensation — the higher the pick, the more value it has). Finally, a team could sign a star player in free agency (although, small market teams usually don’t have the appeal to sign a star player outright).

In order for everyone, small market teams and poorly constructed teams included, to have a shot at landing star players, getting a top pick as compensation for a bad season seems to be the most logical way of spreading stars throughout the league.

For Major League Baseball and the National Football League, the worst teams get the highest draft pick in that year’s following draft. You win 59 out of 162 games like the Minnesota Twins did last season? Guess what, you get your chance at picking the best player available. Or how about the Cleveland Browns, who won just one of their 16 football games last year? Guess what, they got their choice of all every eligible player in the draft.

It isn’t a guarantee that players picked first overall in a draft ultimately turn into stars, but it’s the option that the worst team in the entire league has their pick of the litter that is so valuable. If a team is perpetually bad, but can’t win the draft lottery and continues to miss out on their franchise player, how does that create parity in the NBA? Short answer: it doesn’t.

By keeping the struggling teams at an arm’s distance from what could be viewed as their own first-aid kit in the form of a top overall pick, the NBA allows less of a chance for a franchise to rise of from the bottom of their league and challenge the Golden State’s and San Antonio’s of the world for a prolonged period of time.

In Wojnarowski’s report, he also makes mention that a varied structure of the reform could involve a potential clause that wouldn’t allow a team to draft within the top three picks in consecutive years. While this stipulation isn’t directly proposed in the reform’s current structure, it is expected to be discussed at the board of governors meeting, Wojnarowski said.

With the current stranglehold the Golden State Warriors have on the NBA and the trend of super teams the NBA is experiencing, clubs with one good player being able to compete for a championship is a thing of the past. Barring a team from being able to select within the top three in consecutive years potentially stops that team from throwing away a handful of wins the season after they draft in a high slot, but it doesn’t allow that team the opportunity to build a contender and add another franchise into the mix for a championship.

Through their words and their actions, dating back to the 2014 attempt the league made on a lottery reform, it’s clear that the NBA wants to make it harder for bad teams to become contenders.

As the 2017-18 gets ready to tip off, with another Warriors-Cavaliers NBA finals seeming imminent, parity is certainly becoming an issue throughout the league. However, reforming the lottery and cutting down the fractional chances bad teams already have at landing their star player isn’t going to fix that problem.

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NBA Saturday: Russ Smith Is Trying to Score His Way Back Into The NBA

Russ Smith is lighting up scoreboards halfway across the world, waiting for his next NBA chance.

Dennis Chambers

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A few days had gone by since the NBA Development League’s eighth annual Elite Mini Camp concluded back on May 10.

Russ Smith, who spent 25 games with the Delaware 87ers last season, put on a performance throughout the two-day event where he displayed his ability to score the ball at a high level as well as get his teammates open. The scouting event designed to give D-League players a chance to crack the NBA scene surely would have rewarded one of its leading scorers with a brand new opportunity to continue their basketball career.

Except it didn’t.

“I thought I would get a phone call,” Smith said. “And my phone never rang.”

Instead, Smith — a 6-foot guard and Brooklyn native — was forced to look at other opportunities should he want to continue his basketball career.

“I might as well try something different, see if I can, you know, do what I do best,” Smith, the No. 47 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, told Basketball Insiders. “The year previous when I went to Summer League, I don’t think I got a fair chance. As somebody that wasn’t signed to a team, you gotta go through a lot of, like, BS, in the Summer League. It’s kind of, I don’t want to say annoying, but I just decided to come out here and try something different. To be able to score.”

By “here”, Smith means the Chinese National Basketball League, where he now suits up for Luoyang.

A former consensus first-team All-American with Louisville back in 2013-14, Smith has always had a knack for putting the ball in the basket. When he followed his gut decision to forgo another shot at the Summer League to move halfway across the world, Smith’s motive was because he knew he would get the opportunity to do, as he says, “do best.”

Well, Smith certainly didn’t let his opportunity go to waste.

Following the end of the regular season, Smith led the league in scoring. According to him, that was his expectation when he made the commitment to play in China. However, what he didn’t expect was the gross magnitude in which he would wind up scoring points.

Smith averaged 61.2 points per game.

That’s right. Every night Smith stepped on the court he was looking to hang 60-plus on his opponents. This included 64 in his first game, a four-game stretch of scoring 70-plus points and ultimately his 81-point performance.

No player in the history of the NBL has ever averaged more than 45 points per game.

Right from the jump, Smith started getting buckets for Luoyang. However, his team wasn’t faring as well as he was. Smith’s squad started the season 1-3, despite his scoring barrages. But after noticing how defenses started keying in on the spectacular scorer, Smith made his own adjustments, and the team’s success followed suit.

“I started doing things a lot differently,” Smith said after recognizing defensive adjustments. “I started cutting a lot more, moving with the ball a lot more, breaking out in transition a lot, getting easy ones, jump-stopping, a lot of pull-ups. There’s no scouting report for that.

“Because of that, my teammates started picking up a lot of slack. They started getting easy opportunities, getting open looks. We started off the season 1-3, but then after that everything just started really moving well. We became a top-3 team in our league.”

Clearly Luoyang’s most dangerous scorer, Smith wanted to show the league — and the rest of the basketball world — that he was more than a one-trick pony. He figures that by showing he can do more than just score at will, maybe more doors for different opportunities will open in the future.

“I averaged 61 and a half, so I felt like what I was doing out here, regardless, they’re gonna have to start taking me seriously as a scoring guard, anywhere I go,” Smith said. “That’s really the impression I wanted to leave, and then at the same time, I was top-three in assists, and I lead the league in steals.”

Now, when a player takes the court each night with the ability to, for lack of a better word, embarrass the opponent, some guys won’t take that so lightly. Unlike playing ball back over in the states, life in the NBL is a bit more rough and tumble, according to Smith. There are fewer technicals dished out, and maybe some contact that you wouldn’t get away with in the NBA is accepted over there. Because of that, Smith has a little more on his mind than just pulling up to hit a jumper when he has the ball. To him, that’s been one of the biggest adjustments he’s had to make since taking ahold of this latest opportunity.

“Sometimes when I’m shooting shots, I’m focused on making it,” Smith said. “But when you see somebody jump that close to you and you’re not used to it, you kinda gotta fade back a little or brace yourself coming down. So, you can’t even put all of your focus into making shots, you gotta watch everything because they might jump under you.”

Smith does concede that there are some dirty players back stateside as well, but the abundance in the NBL has made him play with a bit more caution than he originally anticipated. Regardless, the numbers speak for themselves and so do the results. Luoyang finished the regular season 18-8, the third best record in the league.

After a season that would be considered wildly successful from Smith’s standpoint, new doors have opened for him. Maybe not the ones he would have envisioned for himself back in May, but positive endeavors nonetheless. Next season, Smith will move up to China’s highest league, the Chinese Basketball Association, where he’ll play for Fujian. Former NBA players Al Harrington, Sebastian Telfair, and J.J. Hickson all once suited up for Fujian. Most recently, Dwight Buycks, who just inked a deal to play for the Detroit Pistons next season, also played with the same CBA club.

So, Smith is moving himself up in the ranks of Chinese basketball. Just like he did in the NBL this past season, he’s looking to get buckets next year all the same.

“I want to assert myself in a situation to show people, ‘Alright he can really score the ball,’” Smith said. “‘He’s done it here, he’s done it here.’ Now, I’m gonna try [to] have some momentum.”

For as much success as Smith has had this summer in China, however, there’s still the nagging itch he has about not being in the NBA. Sure, Smith has had stints in the league. After being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014, Smith managed to appear on an NBA court 27 times from 2014-16, most notably with the Memphis Grizzlies. Despite his fleeting time spent in the league, Smith feels like he never got a fair shake in terms of being able to contribute what he does best on the basketball court: Score the ball.

“There’s point guards and guards in the league that can’t create shots for others, and they need a ball-screen,” Smith said. “Or that they can’t push the ball, they’re not fast enough. And it sucks because I feel like I’m all of those things, but they’d rather have those guys because they’re easier to manage.”

Smith takes it one step further, even. To him, there’s no way he can look at every NBA roster and believe every player on that team is better than him. In order for him to have the drive he needs to turn his dreams into reality, he needs to think that way.

“I really think it’s BS that I’m not on an NBA roster, to say the least,” Smith said. “There’s no way that I can look 30 teams in the NBA, in the states, and I can go, ‘All 13 guys on this roster is better than me.’ I can’t believe that.”

In the meantime, the Brooklyn native with a colorful personality will continue to bide his time in China doing what he does best and getting buckets. Smith mentioned that he can assimilate just fine to the Chinese culture. Across the Pacific, certain norms like a Pizza Hut or Papa John’s are treated as fine cuisine. As Smith said, “You can’t go wrong going there, out here.”

And when he isn’t dropping 81-point games and eating at altered versions of American pizza joints, Smith will just relax at his place and watch movies on his laptop or play cards with his teammates, patiently waiting for the next time he can step on the court.

Life halfway across the world has been kind to Smith so far, but to the point guard who’s been lighting up the scoreboards, coming back home to play in the NBA is never too far from his train of thought.

“I would love to,” Smith said. “I’m from the states, and I’m an American at the end of the day. That’s the best league in America, so when I’m doing what I’m doing over here, I think it’s only right to bring me back to the crib. There’s no other way to put it.”

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