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Sabonis, Turner Providing More Answers Than Questions

Domantas Sabonis wanted to start and the Indiana Pacers obliged. Despite its old-school style, early returns on the Pacers’ frontcourt are good – at least after one preseason game. Jack Winter writes.

Jack Winter

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Nate McMillan almost made it seem like the Indiana Pacers’ hand was forced.

With Domantas Sabonis eligible for an extension until late October or entering restricted free agency next summer, it was crucial for the Pacers to prove that he’s a part of their long-term plans. Coming off a breakout season that cemented him as one of the most productive young bigs in basketball, too, Sabonis made it clear he wanted a more significant role – and Indiana, positional redundancies and stylistic complications be damned, had no choice but to give it to him.

“Last season, you’re trying to find ways for him get more minutes,” McMillan told reporters on Pacers Media Day last week. “He feels he’s a starter. He feels he’s a starter, he wants to become a starter, he expressed that to us. We had to make room for him to do that. We felt that he was part of the future of this organization, and we had a starting center in Myles [Turner].

“We had to make room for him.”

There’s an important distinction between the Pacers honoring Sabonis’ desires at the expense of team success and doing so with that overarching factor in mind. In 2019, it’s taboo for a team to start a pair of traditional big men. The league is smaller than ever before and faster than it’s been in 30 years. Committing major minutes to an old-school frontcourt – even one including an established superstar – is contrary to not just where the game is right now, but all of the signs point to the trend continuing.

Indiana understands that reality, of course. If there’s anything to be taken from McMillan’s forthright explanation behind Sabonis’ promotion, it’s that both he and the organization at large understand the potential pitfalls of such a development. Sabonis and Turner no doubt do, too. But just because the Pacers are aware of the risk they’re taking by entering the 2019-20 season with a frontcourt better suited for decades earlier hardly means the possible rewards don’t outweigh it.

That much was clear on Friday in Mumbai at the inaugural NBA India Games, where Indiana beat the Sacramento Kings 132-131 in an overtime thriller that functioned much more like a game that mattered than both teams’ preseason opener.

Sabonis and Turner shared the floor for just less than 16 minutes in their first ever start as teammates, with the Pacers outscoring the Kings by 13 points. Indiana shot a scorching 18-of-32 from the field with Sabonis and Turner playing together and absolutely dominated both the offensive and defensive glass, which McMillan suggested at Media Day was key to their sustained viability as a tandem.

The Pacers won’t always put up a 144.1 offensive rating during stretches featuring their new starting frontcourt. Much of that gaudy number, for instance, is owed to the red-shot shooting of T.J. Warren, who poured in 30 points and went 5-of-6 from deep in his Indiana debut. Still, the eye test from Friday’s game certainly lends credence to the hope that offense may not hold the Sabonis-Turner partnership back.

Turner has received a lot of flak for his natural inclination to set up a step or two inside the arc as both a ball-screen partner and off-ball shooter. He took 3.3 mid-range jumpers per game last season, per NBA.com, hitting them at a solid 41.2 percent clip. But Turner has worked tirelessly to realize his pre-draft potential as a three-point shooter, and is comfortable enough in that regard by now that he should always launch triples rather than long twos.

On Friday, with Sabonis mostly serving as Indiana’s designated roll man, Turner made a concerted effort to retreat behind the arc if he found himself inside it when ball handlers turned the corner.

Turner tried just one three-pointer against Sacramento, a look from above the break he let fly in transition with no hesitation whatsoever. It would be supremely disappointing if he didn’t attempt at least three triples per game this season; four would be a number with which Indiana should be happy.

Don’t confuse Turner’s inability to get up threes on Friday as any harbinger of hesitance to come. The Kings were simply so overwhelmed by their opponent’s size and execution that there weren’t many opportunities for Turner to shoot threes within the flow of the offense and random ball movement.

The space provided by Turner stationing himself on the perimeter, like a stretch four, made stopping the Pacers’ real power forward next to impossible.

Sabonis has a keen sense of timing as a roller, frequently finding cracks within the defense to make himself available for a pass, and is one of the most accomplished dribble hand-off partners in the NBA. He went 9-of-11 from the restricted area all by himself on Friday, on multiple occasions out-muscling Marvin Bagley III for thunderous dunks and routinely using his patience and footwork in a crowd to find room to finish.

But it’s not just his effectiveness as an interior scorer that separates Sabonis from other offensively-minded bigs with limited shooting range. Sabonis is a dangerous, clever passer from all over the floor, a trait that seems to be rubbing off on Turner entering his fourth season in the league.

Most concerns about playing two traditional big men revolve around shooting. Small-ball has grown so ubiquitous across the league, though, that spreading the floor with one-dimensional shooters is no longer enough. On the game’s best offenses, those guys can make smart plays with the ball, too.

Sabonis was blessed with that ability from the womb, and Turner has already made the type of playmaking strides some thought he never would. The latter found T.J. McConnell on Friday with a slick bounce pass after letting him turn the corner on a would-be dribble hand-off, a staple of Sabonis and other impactful high-post passers.

But it’s the big-to-big passing that was most impressive in Indiana’s exhibition debut. There will inevitably be times when Sabonis and Turner both find themselves in the paint when the other has the ball, and it’s imperative they’re able to make quick passing reads in small spaces to get out of that bind – a difficult task they at times made look easy.

While most of the hand-wringing in Indiana about matchups comes on the other side of the ball, Sabonis and Turner were able to use their collective size to an advantage against Sacramento. With Luke Walton matching up positionally, slotting his centers on Turner, the Pacers consistently exploited Sabonis’ strength edge over Bagley and Nemanja Bjelica. Even Turner, showing off some canny deception, found him for a pair of baskets on early-clock post-ups.

The Kings are an especially favorable matchup for the Pacers. They don’t have a big man physical enough to bang bodies with Sabonis defensively, and ranked 26th in defensive rebounding percentage last season before adding Dewayne Dedmon and Richaun Holmes, average rebounders at best. There will be nights when Sabonis doesn’t have a favorable on-one-one matchup, and there will be nights when the Pacers can’t glean easy extra points from wrecking the offensive glass.

There were nevertheless enough signs in Sabonis and Turner’s first game as Indiana’s starting frontcourt to come away very encouraged. It shouldn’t have been all that surprising the double-big look was successful; lineups featuring Sabonis and Turner posted a plus-3.4 net rating last season, per NBA.com, mostly on the strength of defense. But with Victor Oladipo playing beside them, that number bumped up to all the way up to a dominant plus-13.0, as the Pacers scored nearly five more points per 100 possessions and managed to get even stingier defensively.

The sample size is small, and it’s foolish to expect Oladipo – whenever he returns – to immediately be the player he was before rupturing his quad last January. More likely is that he struggles to reach that level until after the All-Star break, or even next season.

Kevin Pritchard did well over the offseason to bring in ball-handlers and scorers who help compensate for Oladipo’s absence – and maybe more importantly, both now and going forward, delay the need for the Sabonis-Turner combination to be a clear strength offensively.

Warren, a natural bucket-getter, proved on Friday that his career-best campaign from deep last season was no fluke, and Malcolm Brogdon thrived playing full-time point guard, especially when running high pick-and-roll with Sabonis. Jeremy Lamb, starting in the backcourt in Oladipo’s stead, is a more dynamic scorer than any guard this team took to the playoffs last spring.

Sabonis and Turner are still a long way from proving their partnership is viable offensively. The Pacers were elite on defense with them on the floor together a year ago, but it’s telling that against Sacramento McMillan spent the last few minutes of the fourth quarter with Turner manning the middle, then had Sabonis take his place for the duration of overtime.

Harrison Barnes, playing power forward for the Kings down the stretch on Friday, isn’t exactly Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton, any three of the Boston Celtics’ talented wings, nor Pascal Siakam, the players Sabonis will be tasked with checking when Indiana meets other likely playoff teams in the East. The Philadelphia 76ers’ similar size and far superior talent is another thing entirely.

Questions on both sides of the ball abound for the Pacers. As the regular season quickly approaches, though, there’s ample reason to believe the long-made decision to start a throwback frontcourt was the right one – and not just because they “had to make room” for Sabonis.

Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and more.

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NBA Daily: Tyronn Lue is the Right Coach for the Clippers

Is Lue the right coach for the Los Angeles Clippers? David Yapkowitz thinks so.

David Yapkowitz

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When Doc Rivers was first hired by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, the expectation was that he would be the one to guide the franchise into respectability. A laughingstock of the NBA for pretty much their entire existence, marred by bad coaching, bad management and bad ownership, Rivers was supposed to help change all of that.
For the most part, he did.

Rivers arrived from the Boston Celtics with the 2008 championship, and he helped the Celtics regain their standing as one of the NBA’s elite teams. The Clippers were a perennial playoff contender under him and were even in the conversation for being a possible championship contender. The Lob City Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly were talked about as being a title contender, and this season’s group led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were definitely in the mix as well.

Not only did Rivers steady the team on the court though, but he was also a very steadying presence off the court. He guided the franchise through the Donald Sterling controversy and he was a positive voice for the team as they navigated the bubble and the ongoing charge for social reform in the country.

But when things go wrong with a team, the coach is usually the one who ends up taking the fall. While Rivers did bring the Clippers to a level of respectability the franchise has never known, his record was not without blemishes. Most notably was his team’s inability to close out playoff series’ after holding three games to one on advantages two separate occasions.

In 2015, the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets only to squander that lead and lose Game 7 on the road. In Game 6, their shots stopped falling and neither Paul nor Griffin could do anything to halt the Rockets onslaught.

This season, in an incredibly similar fashion, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets and ended up getting blown out the second half of Game 7. Just like before, the offense stalled multiple games and neither Leonard nor George could make a difference.

There were also questions about Rivers’ rotations and his seeming inability to adjust to his opponents. In the end, something had to change, and whether it’s right or wrong, the coach usually ends up taking the fall.

Enter Tyronn Lue. Lue, like Rivers, is also a former NBA player and has a great deal of respect around the league. He came up under Rivers, getting his first coaching experience as an assistant in Boston, and then following Rivers to the Clippers.

He ended up joining David Blatt’s staff in Cleveland in 2014, and when Blatt was fired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue was promoted to head coach. In the playoffs that year, Lue guided the Cavaliers to victory in their first 10 playoff games. They reached the Finals where they famously came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.

The Cavaliers reached the Finals each full year of Lue’s tenure as head coach, but he was let go at the start of the 2018-19 season when the team started 0-6 after the departure of LeBron James.

In the 2019 offseason, Lue emerged as the leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, before he ultimately rejected the team’s offer. After rejoining Rivers in LA with the Clippers for a year, he once again emerged as a leading candidate for multiple head coaching positions this offseason before agreeing to terms with the Clippers.

Following the Clippers series loss to the Nuggets, many players openly talked about the team’s lack of chemistry and how that may have played a factor in the team’s postseason demise. Adding two-star players in Leonard and George was always going to be a challenge from a chemistry standpoint, and the Clippers might have secured the perfect man to step up to that challenge.

During his time in Cleveland, Lue was praised for his ability to manage a locker room that included James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 7 against the Warriors, Lue reportedly challenged James at halftime and ended up lighting a fire that propelled the Cavaliers to the championship.

Lue’s ability to deal with star egos isn’t just limited to his coaching tenure. During his playing days, Lue was a trusted teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers during a time when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t seeing eye to eye. He also played with Michael Jordan during Jordan’s Washington Wizard days.

Now, he’ll be tasked with breaking through and leading the Clippers to a place where no Clipper team has ever been before. He’ll be expected to finish what Rivers was unable to accomplish and guide the Clippers to an NBA championship.

For one, he’ll have to change the Clippers offensive attack. This past season, the Clippers relied too much on an isolation heavy offense centered around Leonard and George. That style of play failed in the playoffs when after failing to adjust, the Clippers kept taking tough shot after tough shot while the Nuggets continued to run their offense and get good shots.

With the Cavaliers, Lue showed his ability to adjust his offense and work to his player’s strengths. In the 2018 Playoffs, Lue employed a series of off-ball screens involving Love and Kyle Korver with James reading the defense and making the correct read to whoever was in the best position to score.

When playing with James, the offense sometimes tends to stagnate with the other four players standing around and waiting for James to make his move. Lue was able to get the other players to maintain focus and keep them engaged when James had the ball in his hands. Look for him to try and do something similar for when either Leonard or George has the ball in their hands.

He’s already got a player on the roster in Landry Shamet who can play that Korver role as the designated shooter on the floor running through off-ball screens and getting open. Both Leonard and George have become efficient enough playmakers to be able to find open shooters and cutters. That has to be Lue’s first task to tweak the offense to find ways to keep the rest of the team engaged and active when their star players are holding the ball.

The defensive end is going to be something he’ll need to adjust as well. The Clippers have some of the absolute best individual defensive players in the league. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, George was a finalist for the award in 2019 and Patrick Beverley is a perennial All-Defensive Team selection.

When the team was locked in defensively this season, there wasn’t a team in the league that could score on them. The problem for them was they seemingly couldn’t stay engaged on the defensive end consistently enough. The other issue was Rivers’ inability to adjust his defense to his opponent. Against the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic had a field day whenever Montrez Harrell was guarding him.

Lue’s primary task will be to get this team to maintain their defensive intensity throughout the season, as well as recognize what matchups are and aren’t working. Both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green were more effective frontcourt defenders in the postseason than Harrell was. Look for Lue to play to his team’s strengths, as he always has, and to trot out a heavy dose of man-to-man defense.

Overall, Lue was the best hire available given the candidates. He’s got a strong rapport among star players. He’s made it to the finals multiple times and won a championship as a head coach. And he already has experience working with Leonard and George.

Given the potential free agent status of both Leonard and George in the near future, the Clippers have a relatively small window of championship contention. Lue was in a similar situation in Cleveland when James’ pending free agency in the summer of 2018 was also a factor. That time around, Lue delivered. He’ll be ready for this new challenge.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Third Scorer Is By Committee

The Los Angeles Lakers have a whole unit of third scoring options – and that’s why they’re one win from an NBA Championship.

David Yapkowitz

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One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.

Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.

The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.

For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.

But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.

Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.

“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”

On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.

He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.

He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.

Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.

“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”

Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.

He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.

For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.

“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.

“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”

And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.

“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”

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NBA Daily: Alex Caruso: The Lakers’ Unsung Hero

The Los Angeles Lakers are two wins from an NBA championship and Alex Caruso is just happy to play his role and contribute.

David Yapkowitz

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Alex Caruso has technically been an NBA player for three years now, but this season is his first on a regular NBA contract.

After going undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2016, he began his professional career as with the Philadelphia 76ers in summer league. He managed to make it to training camp with the Oklahoma City Thunder but was eventually cut and acquired by their the G League team, the Blue.

In the summer of 2017, he joined the Los Angeles Lakers for summer league, and he’s stuck with the team ever since. A strong performance in Las Vegas earned him the opportunity to sign a two-way contract with the Lakers for the 2017-18 season, meaning he’d spend most of his time with the South Bay Lakers in the G League.

The Lakers re-signed him to another two-way contract before the 2018-19 season. Restricted to only 45 days with the Lakers under his two-way contracts, Caruso played in a total of 62 games over those two years.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that the Lakers finally signed him to a standard NBA contract worth $5.5 million over two years. And he’s become a key player off the Lakers bench, especially in the playoffs.

Despite not getting much of an early opportunity, Caruso continued to put in the work in anticipation of when his number would finally be called. He always was confident that it would come.

“It’s been the story of my career, no matter what level I’m at, the more time I have on the court, the better I’ve gotten,” Caruso told reporters after the Lakers eliminated the Denver Nuggets. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity, I was two years on two-ways…finally I played well enough to get a contract, and over the course of the year it’s the same thing, anytime I can get out there on the court, I get better.”

Caruso’s stats may not jump off the page, he put up 5.5 points per game this season on only 41.2 percent shooting from the field, 33.3 percent from three-point range, 1.9 assists and 1.9 rebounds, but his impact has gone far beyond statistics.

His playoff numbers are up slightly at 6.8 points on 43.6 percent shooting to go along with 2.9 assists and 2.3 rebounds, but he’s become an invaluable member of the team’s postseason run. The defensive intensity and energy he brings to the court have been instrumental in playoff wins.

In this postseason alone, he’s seen himself matched up defensively with Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and one of the bubble’s breakout stars in Jamal Murray. Each time, he hasn’t backed down from the challenge and has even provided solid man to man defense on each of them.

“Looking and diving into the basketball aspect, series by series, just finding different ways that I know I can be effective, watching past games against opponents, just knowing their tendencies,” Caruso said on a recent media call. “The defense and the effort thing is something I’m always going to have. You can see that in the regular season when I might be more excited on a stop or defensive play on somebody than the rest of the team in game 45 or 50 in the season.”

While his main contributions have been his defense and his hustle, he’s found ways to be effective on the offensive end as well. While not shooting particularly well from three-point range percentage-wise in the playoffs at only 26.9 percent, he’s hit some timely ones during Laker runs to either pull closer to their opponent or to blow the game open.

He’s also been able to get the rim off drives and get himself to the free-throw line, and he’s made strong cuts off the ball to free himself up for easy layups. Playing with the second unit, he’s played a lot of off-ball with Rajon Rondo as the main facilitator, or with LeBron James as the only starter on the floor.

“For me, I think it’s about being aggressive. At any time I can put pressure on the paint whether it’s to get to the rim to finish or to draw fouls or make the defense collapse and get open shots for teammates, that’s really an added benefit for us to have multiple guys out on the court,” Caruso said.

“So whenever I’m out there with Rondo or with LeBron, to not have the sole focus be on one of them to create offense for everybody, it makes us a lot more balanced.”

The trust that Lakers head coach Frank Vogel and the rest of the team have in Caruso has been evident this whole postseason. Perhaps no bigger moment came for him than in Game 6 against the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals when Vogel left him on the court to close out the game.

He’s also become one of the team’s vocal leaders on the court during gameplay, on the sidelines in the huddle and the locker room. On a team with a lot of strong personalities, Caruso’s ascendance as a locker room leader is something that just comes naturally for him. It’s something he’s done his entire basketball career.

“Being vocal has always been easy for me. Outside of this team, I’ve usually been one of the leaders on the team, one of the best players on my team growing up at different levels of basketball. Being vocal is pretty natural for me,” Caruso said.

“I got the trust of my teammates, they understand what I’m talking about. I say what I need to say and it doesn’t fall on deaf ears. I’m really competitive and if there’s something I think needs to be said, I’m going to do it. I leave no stone unturned to get the job done.”

Now in the NBA Finals, as the Lakers seek to win their first championship since 2010 and No. 17 overall, Caruso has reprised his role as a defensive irritant and glue guy who makes winning plays. For the team to win this series, they need to continue to get timely contributions from him.

And with each step of the way, he’s just soaking it all up and is thrilled to be able to have this opportunity alongside some of the NBA’s best.

“It’s a journey I’ve been on my whole life just to get to this point. It’s really cool, I don’t know how to state it other than that,” Caruso said. “It’s just super cool for me to be able to have this experience. To play meaningful minutes and play well, and be on the court with LeBron in big-time moments.”

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