DGS NBA Power Rankings: We The North
Another week has gone by, and the NBA playoff picture is really starting to take shape. Can the Raptors finish the regular season atop the Eastern Conference? Will anyone in the West be able to match up with the Rockets or Warriors in a playoff series? Read on and find out as Jason Goldstein and Ben McDonald bring you the latest edition of the DGS NBA Power Rankings!
- Golden State Warriors (49-14) (Last week’s ranking: 1) – The Warriors are starting to get some competition for the top spot. Houston has passed them in the standings and ride a long win streak. Draymond Green noted in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated that the Rockets were built to beat the Warriors. Given the amount of hype around the Warriors it is easy to forget that this iteration has not even played two full seasons together. That said, it can feel hyperbolic to say they face their biggest threat this season but that is what the Rockets are. The Warriors are no slouches, though. They may have been passed in the standings but that is also a function of a team that has admitted to boredom this regular season and whom Coach Steve Kerr has sought to galvanize with all sorts of measures, including letting them coach themselves. Green tells the Rockets that their threat was “noted” and that the Warriors will “see y’all soon.” With Jonathan Abrams recent celebration of the greatest TV show ever hitting shelves, it might be more appropriate to quote the late, great Omar Little. So, to the Rockets we say: if you come at the kings, you best not miss.
- Houston Rockets (49-13) (Last week’s ranking: 2) – The Rockets have the best record in the league. Daryl Morey was just lording over his Sloan Conference, which managed to bring in Barack Obama. James Harden is the presumptive MVP. The Rockets are living “la dulce vita” right now. On top of everything else, Morey is one of the favorites to win the executive of the year after bringing Chris Paul into the fold. Meanwhile, off the radar Clint Capela has turned himself into one of the best young big men in the league. With all of the positive vibes, it feels cruel to be a downer. However, the Rockets will still be underdogs against the Warriors come playoff time and this team has not made a conference finals since Dwight Howard left. That series turned into a crowning for the Warriors that lasted a mere five games. This is all a reminder that regardless of all the regular season accomplishments, Paul and Harden need to succeed in the postseason. Anything short of a conference finals would be a colossal disappointment.
- Toronto Raptors (45-17) (Last week’s ranking: 3) – In a season where the Celtics and Cavaliers were pegged as the favorites, who saw the Raptors sitting alone atop the Eastern Conference with 20 games remaining? The Raps have won four-straight and currently lead the Celtics by a game and a half for homecourt advantage throughout the Conference playoffs. DeMar DeRozan was named the NBA Eastern Conference player of the week for the fourth time this season. He averaged a team-high 20.8 points over Toronto’s four wins last week and has continued to show that his name belongs in the MVP conversation. He may not win the award, but DeRozan is one of the main reasons why the Raptors are performing so well this season. Another reason is head coach Dwane Casey. He is pulling all the right strings and should be the favorite for the NBA Coach of the Year award if the Raptors finish at or near the top of the conference standings.
- Boston Celtics (45-20) (Last week’s ranking: 4) – Boston is an intriguing team. They still have what it takes to beat anyone in the East in a seven-game playoff series, but they are one Kyrie Irving injury away from their entire season collapsing. The All-Star point guard sat out Monday night’s win over the Chicago Bulls because of left knee soreness. Head coach Brad Stevens has said that it will not be a long-term concern, but the situation definitely bears watching. If Irving can come back healthy, the C’s still have time to potentially overtake the Raptors for the top seed in the Eastern Conference standings, but they might be smart to bring him along slowly so that he is ready for the playoffs. Look for Al Horford to be much more aggressive for as long as Irving is out. If Stevens can get both stars going simultaneously, the Celtics will be a scary team to face this Spring.
- Cleveland Cavaliers (37-26) (Last week’s ranking: 6) – Believe it or not, only three games separate the third and eighth seeds in the Eastern Conference standings. The Cavaliers are currently in the third slot, but the surging Pacers are just one-half game behind them entering play Tuesday. Now is obviously not a good time for the Cavs to get bit by the NBA injury bug. Tristan Thompson is expected to be sidelined multiple games with an ankle injury and Jeff Green is out with a sore back. Thank goodness for Larry Nance Jr., who the Cavs inserted into the starting lineup for the time being to replace Thompson. He had a career night on Monday against the Pistons, finishing with 22 points, 15 rebounds and two steals in a blowout victory. If Nance can keep this level of play going, then the Cavs will be just fine until Thompson is able to return. However, the ceiling for Cleveland will most likely be the No. 3 seed with the way the Celtics and Raptors are playing. I don’t think they can make up a seven-game gap in the standings with only 19 games left.
- Portland Trail Blazers (38-26) (Last week’s ranking: 13) – How do we assess the Trail Blazers? On the one hand, Portland is a great overachiever this season. Who could have expected Damian Lillard and company to be the third seed in this stacked Western Conference so late in the season? Who would have expected Lillard to be a one-man wrecking crew while having one of the finest seasons of his career? Here comes the cold water. Does any of the above even matter with Houston and Golden State above them? In most seasons, this plucky run would be a cause for celebration. This season, it might be a reason for consternation and concern over the competitive balance of the league. Portland represents a small market team that drafts well and has been active in free agency. If teams like the Trail Blazers cannot find success, it begs questions about the sustainability of some small market teams in the current NBA landscape.
- Washington Wizards (36-28) (Last week’s ranking: 7) – The Wizards are definitely missing John Wall. They are on a three-game losing streak and Bradley Beal looks exhausted. In the 16 games that Wall has missed to date, Beal is tied with Anthony Davis and LeBron James for the most minutes per game (37.9) in the NBA. The Wizards need to get it together quickly as they are only two games ahead of eighth place in the East. The Pistons are fading fast, so it doesn’t appear that their playoff spot is in trouble, but they do not want to fall to the eighth spot and have to face the Raptors or Celtics in the first-round. Wall should be back before the end of the month, but Scott Brooks needs to find a way for his team to win games without burning out their best players. The team added Ramon Sessions to provide guard depth, but he barely moves the needle for me.
- Indiana Pacers (37-27) (Last week’s ranking: 11) – Bojan Bogdanovic has been on a tear lately for the Pacers, who are on a winning streak that has lifted them past the Wizards and Sixers in the standings. Over his last 13 games, Bogdanovic is averaging close to 20 points per game and has performed well while playing next to Victor Oladipo. With Lance Stephenson beginning to play better and Darren Collison nearing a return to the court after knee surgery, the Pacers could prove to be a tough out once the playoffs begin. After the Raptors, the Pacers would be my pick for the surprise team in the East. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Indiana, but the players and coaches were having none of that talk. With the Cavs struggling, the Pacers could capitalize and wind up finishing the regular season as the No. 3 seed. They could hit a wall themselves and stumble back a bit, but the Pacers are one of the best stories in the NBA this season regardless of how things end.
- New Orleans Pelicans (36-26) (Last week’s ranking: 12) – New Orleans could find itself even higher in the rankings if the Pelicans can continue to play well. At the moment, they seem like a team playing over their heads. They are still far too reliant on injury-prone MVP candidate Anthony Davis. Davis just capped an all-time February performance. Few players in the league can even enter the stratosphere he was in throughout the month. The good news for New Orleans is that they have been getting solid contributions from other sources as well. Hopefully, when Davis inevitably cools down, Nikola Mirotic and Jrue Holiday can pick up the slack. It will be a tall order for those two given that Davis’ contributions are probably underrated by his historic stats. He has perennially been the defensive anchor for a team who lacks other playmakers on that end. The Pelicans consistently rank dramatically better on defense (and offense) when he is on the floor. The bad news is that Davis has played over 38 minutes a game since the new year and the Pelicans have only increased the pace with the loss of Cousins. His minutes per game since the new year leads the league. That knowledge is horrifying for any Pelicans fan given his injury history and the history of big men playing minutes like those. It rarely ends well for the player or the team.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (38-28) (Last week’s ranking: 8) – Speaking of overplaying star players, the Timberwolves are still feeling the aftershocks of the Jimmy Butler injury. They have lost two in a row, which is crisis territory in a Western Conference that has 10 legitimate playoff contenders. Just a couple of weeks ago the Timberwolves were sitting pretty in the third seed. Now, there is a real possibility that they could miss the playoffs entirely. They have a tough schedule down the stretch and Andrew Wiggins simply cannot replicate what Butler gave them. Observers often see a gaudy point total and connotate it with offensive effectiveness. Wiggins continues to settle for too many jumpers without making meaningful contributions in other aspects of the game. To wit, he has averaged just two assists and three rebounds a game in his past five. Wiggins is a 6’8 athletic freak. It is incomprehensible that he is not a better rebounder or defender at his position. Karl Anthony-Towns has received a lot of scrutiny and will shoulder most of the blame should the Timberwolves collapse and miss the playoffs. Towns might get the attention but Wiggins will determine Minnesota’s fate.
- San Antonio Spurs (37-27) (Last week’s ranking: 5) – The Spurs are another team that has sat in the top half of the bracket all season. They eked out a win over Memphis Monday, which inspired no one with renewed confidence. Kawhi Leonard has essentially been ruled out by Coach Gregg Popovich. That leaves this rag tag group to scratch and claw for a playoff spot. The good news is that they already banked a lot of wins earlier in the season and have playoff pedigree. The bad news is that they face an uphill battle with one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA. LaMarcus Aldridge will have to return to his early season all-star form if the Spurs hope to hang onto their spot. Pau Gasol exited with an injury on Monday and the Spurs will need him. To finish the season, they play the Warriors twice, Rockets twice, Pelicans twice, Thunder twice, Wizards twice and five other potential playoff teams. That will likely end up as the toughest remaining schedule in the league. On the plus side, facing that many fellow playoff teams means that they will control their own destiny. Good luck!
- Oklahoma City Thunder (37-28) (Last week’s ranking: 9) – It probably sounds like a broken record but the Thunder are another team with a brutal finishing schedule. Minnesota, San Antonio, and OKC have three of the toughest remaining schedules in the league. The Thunder play the Rockets twice, Spurs twice, and have dates with Boston, Toronto, Golden State, and Portland. It has certainly been a roller coaster of a season for the Thunder. Westbrook has turned it on of late and is close to averaging a triple-double again this season. Towards the middle of February, it looked like Westbrook was settling into more of a facilitator role but his performance to end February and into March have shown that the is the same old Russ. He has scored thirty points in his last three games, including 43 against the porous Suns defense. He also perked up his rebounding for the month, which happens to be the lone stat remaining in the single digits. The challenge for the Thunder and particularly coach Billy Donovan remains the ability to harness Westbrook in a way that benefits the team. At times, Russ ball seems to sap the energy of his teammates as they start watching him rather than playing aggressively. Paul George’s production has ebbed and flowed this season and it is fair to wonder how much of that has to do with his involvement in the offense. When the offense turns into the Russ show, George often finds himself as a spot up shooter. If the Thunder want to live up to preseason expectations or even hold onto their playoff spot, they will need to find a way to get George more involved.
- Philadelphia 76ers (34-28) (Last week’s ranking: 14) – As the season rolls along, I don’t think anyone is getting tired of watching Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid dominate the competition on a nightly basis. However, the Sixers have a habit of blowing big leads, which is something that will not fly during the playoffs. Sunday’s meltdown in Milwaukee absolultely can not happen during the postseason, especially when the Bucks and Sixers could wind up meeting in the first-round depending on how the final standings shake out. The good thing for the Sixers is that five of their next seven games are against Eastern Conference bottom feeders, so they should be able to crank out several victories as we enter the final stretch of the regular season.
- Milwaukee Bucks (34-30) (Last week’s ranking: 10) – Sunday’s come-from-behind win over the Sixers could not have come at a better time for the Bucks, who have slipped all the way to the eighth seed. They were on a four-game losing streak at the time and found themselves down by 19 points in the third quarter against Philadelphia before waking up. Jabari Parker is back in the lineup and that should help the Bucks, but interim head coach Joe Prunty has got to be careful when playing him alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. The Bucks were outscored by a wide margin (22 points) when the trio shared the floor together over the weekend. Parker could provide a spark for the Bucks while playing with the second unit, which is something the Bucks could really use right now. With the Pistons fading down the stretch, Milwaukee appears to be a safe bet to make the playoffs, but they do not want to wind up with the eighth seed and facing the Raptors or Celtics in the first-round.
- Denver Nuggets (35-28) (Last week’s ranking: 15) – The Nuggets are in an odd position. They have an enviable cache of young talent but might not have a high enough ceiling. If none of their young players emerge as superstars, Denver is probably a middle-tier playoff team at best. That is not a bad thing necessarily but not what many around the league expected. That said, some people around the league have noted their personal affinity for the Nuggets’ collection of players. Jamal Murray is a great shooter and could become an all-star. Nikola Jokic is a transcendent passer and superb offensive player. Will Barton and Trey Lyles show flashes. Gary Harris is a very good young player. Meanwhile, Wilson Chandler and Paul Millsap are the quintessential veteran leaders on a team. On paper, it looks like something. Most of their problems come on the defensive end. Millsap will help when he returns but Murray and Jokic are unlikely to ever become good defensive players and top out as below-average to mediocre. Harris has shown sides on that end of the floor while Barton and Lyles have the measurables that usually portend defensive effectiveness. Unfortunately, they have not put it together on that end. Smart NBA people, particularly those in the analytics field have repeatedly brought up the importance of a big man to the integrity of the defense. Al Horford cements Boston’s defense. Draymond Green does the same in Golden State. Clint Capela has become that player for the Rockets. Some of those players do not fit the big man aesthetic but they definitely check off the job requirements. Nikola Jokic is never going to be that player and that impacts the Nuggets ceiling, particularly without a superstar to guide them.
- Los Angeles Clippers (34-28) (Last week’s ranking: 16) – It has been over a month since the Blake Griffin trade. It felt like a potential rebuilding move but as mentioned on the podcast the Clippers are still contending. The truth then and now is that the Clippers got a lot of talent back for Griffin. This was not like most superstar trades where the majority of the assets are uncertain in terms of value. Most of the players and picks involved are going to have immediate impact. For the Clippers, that has translated into a deep team with numerous interchangeable parts. Lou Williams sits at the center of it and has been a delight all season. For a player of his size who shoots only 44 percent from the field, he is remarkably efficient. He rarely turns the ball over for such a high usage player and gets to the line over six times a game where he converts nearly 90 percent of his shots. He remains the king of the two-for-one and has improved his passing under Coach Doc Rivers. Stop me if you have heard this before but Tobias Harris is playing the best basketball of his life on his new team. His shooting has stayed steady as he remains over 40 percent on the season from beyond the arc. It is unlikely that he will keep up this production and efficiency but he could be the missing piece for the Clippers if he does.
- Utah Jazz (34-30) (Last week’s ranking: 18) – The Jazz might be the most threatening Western Conference opponent for the Rockets and Warriors. Utah has the defensive chops to lock up anyone and Rudy Gobert is back front and center. Do not let the lack of big names beyond him fool you. The Jazz are not scrappy overachievers. There is real talent on this team from potential rookie of the year Donovan Mitchell, to former lottery pick Derrick Favors, to math teacher look-alike Joe Ingles, and of course the incomparable and heavily tattooed Ricky Rubio. That list does not even include Jae Crowder or Alec Burks. The Jazz are a good team and while they sit a couple games out of the playoffs for now, they have the talent and favorable schedule to make up some ground. They do not have a cake walk but it is nothing compared to the tough schedules many teams above them face to finish the season. If they can go 12-6 to finish the season, they have a great shot at making the postseason.
- Miami Heat (34-30) (Last week’s ranking: 17) – Things are beginning to heat up in Miami, and I’m not talking about the weather. The Heat have won four of their past five games and are hot on the heels of the Pacers, Wizards and Sixers in the standings. This will be a big week for them, with their next three games against the Wizards (twice) and Sixers. What makes this week even more important is that after this stretch, Miami will only have one game remaining against a team currently ahead of them in the standings. With the team playing with a rejuvenated purpose since the return of Dwayne Wade, look for the Heat to place a firm grasp on a playoff berth and a chance to make some real noise come April and May.
- Los Angeles Lakers (28-35) (Last week’s ranking: 21) – The Lakers are playing their best ball of the season. They lost a nail-biter against Portland on Monday that required another miraculous performance by Damian Lillard. Lonzo Ball is back in the lineup and Brandon Ingram has been playing with a noticeable pep in his step since the new year. His newfound aggressiveness surfaced when he got some playmaking opportunities. That does bode well for future pick and rolls between those players but it also might lead to some questions with fit. Coach Luke Walton’s offense is at its best when utilized by multidimensional players who can shoot, pass, and dribble. Ball has struggled shooting in his young NBA career. Can he be an off ball threat in this offense when teams do not respect his jumper? He is a canny cutter but inability to shoot can be death in the modern NBA where teams will ignore non shooters to force the offense to play four-on-five. His development as a shooter could make or break the chances of a future Laker dynasty, particularly if LeBron comes to town.
- Charlotte Hornets (28-36) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – It’s safe to say that the Hornets are ready for the season to be over. After starting the season with playoff aspirations, the Hornets have lost three in a row and all but eliminated themselves from the postseason picture. Their starters are being outscored by nearly seven points per 100 possessions over their last 16 games, and their bench is one of the worst in the NBA. Unfortunately for them, they are not good enough to make the playoffs but are too good to tank. There are currently nine teams with records worse than theirs, and I don’t see them winding up with anything better than the 10th pick in June’s draft. Not an ideal situation for a team with an opening at general manager and a head coach who may not be there by this time next year.
- Detroit Pistons (29-35) (Last week’s ranking: 19) – The Pistons are the leading candidates for the most disappointing team in the NBA this season. They got off to a hot start before coming back down to earth a bit in January. Right before the trade deadline, they made a blockbuster trade to acquire Blake Griffin from the Clippers with the hopes of making a playoff push with Griffin and Andre Drummond leading the way. After the team won a few games with their new frontcourt duo, the Pistons have lost eight of their past 10 games. After holding down a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference, they find themselves five games back of eight-place Milwaukee with 18 games to play. It’s still possible that they make a late charge and make the playoffs, but it’s becoming increasingly likely that the Pistons wind up in the draft lottery with the Clippers receiving their 2018 first-round pick.
- New York Knicks (24-40) (Last week’s ranking: 22) – The most interesting storyline surrounding the Knicks for the remainder of the season will be their carousel of mediocre point guards. Jeff Hornacek currently has Trey Burke, Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay and Jarrett Jack all clamoring for minutes. Both Ntilikina and Mudiay still need time to development, which is why it was surprising that the Knicks decided not to waive Jack. The grizzled veteran would have been a solid addition to a contending team, but instead he will toil on a losing team for the final six weeks of the season. The reeling Knicks have lost four-straight and are officially part of the NBA tanking party at the bottom of the standings. The good thing for them, is that they have their own first-round pick this year. Expect Scott Perry and Steve Mills to draft a young stud to pair with Kristaps Porzingis. That is currently the only feasible route to get the Knicks out of NBA purgatory.
- Chicago Bulls (21-42) (Last week’s ranking: 24) – Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis have formed a nice one-two punch for the Bulls, who are beginning to realize which players on the roster will be a part of their future. Two players who are most certainly on their way out are centers Robin Lopez and Cristiano Felicio. Lopez has not played since the All-Star break. It’s surprising to me that the team didn’t try and release him. Felicio has not played well recently, so Fred Hoiberg has been playing Markkanen at center. The decision has paid off, as the team has scored 110 points per 100 possessions with the rookie manning the middle. I don’t know how many more wins the Bulls have left in them this season, but it will be interesting to see Markkanen carrying them across the finish line. He should have an inside track to make the All-Rookie 1st Team.
- Brooklyn Nets (20-44) (Last week’s ranking: 23) – The Nets are a frustrating team to follow, because they should definitely have more than 20 wins this season. They play hard almost every night, and have lost more close games than any other team in the NBA. Injuries have also played a factor, even though it is a small accomplishment that Brooklyn has already matched its win total from last season. That still does not excuse the fact that the Nets blew leads against the Cavaliers and Clippers last week, two teams that have playoff implications. The key for Kenny Atkinson for the remainder of the season is to continue developing the young players on his roster. Then, it’s up to Sean Marks to determine which players are worth keeping. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will have to return to the starting lineup eventually so that the front office can see how he pairs with Jarrett Allen in the frontcourt. That would mean moving either Spencer Dinwiddie, D’Angelo Russell or Allen Crabbe to the bench. It may not look like it at the moment, but the Nets are at a fairly good place in their long rebuild.
- Orlando Magic (20-44) (Last week’s ranking: 27) – Evan Fournier has played well lately for the Magic, who have won two of their first three games in March. The Magic don’t have too many players to be excited about at the moment, but Fournier at least provides them with some scoring punch. Orlando is currently tied with Brooklyn and Atlanta for the worst record in the Eastern Conference, but at least the Magic and Hawks have 2018 lottery picks to look forward to. After dealing Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline, expect the Magic to draft their point guard of the future in June. Pair him with Aaron Gordon and their turnaround could happen much quicker than fans and pundits expect.
- Atlanta Hawks (20-44) (Last week’s ranking: 29) – If that Hawks can take anything away from their dreadful season, it’s that their defense has moderately improved since February. Over the past five weeks, their overall team defense has ranked top-five in the NBA. They have also had exciting victories over the Pacers and Suns. For a while there, the Hawks were the clear cut worst team in the NBA. Hawks fans can take solace in the fact that they are no longer the worst team in the league. Many other teams have given up on their seasons have joined the Hawks at the bottom of the standings. The race for the No. 1 pick in June’s draft should be interesting.
- Dallas Mavericks (19-45) (Last week’s ranking: 25) – The Lakers are the only Western Conference team that is not in the mix for either the top pick or a playoff spot. It speaks to the way the Western Conference has broken this season. There are essentially only tankers and playoff teams. The Mavericks and Grizzlies feel a bit different than the Suns and Kings since they still have veterans on the roster who can contribute. The Mavericks have Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews to play alongside Dirk Nowitzki. They could be a different kind of one and done than the one they hope to draft. The Mavericks might believe one stud young player will help them get to the next level where they can build through free agency and development. That mindset differs substantially from the Kings and Suns, which seek to build their entire roster via the draft’s pool of young talent. Short-term thinking has been a hallmark and a stumbling block for Dallas. It has served them well but they may have to adapt a long-term strategy if they want to return to contention.
- Phoenix Suns (19-47) (Last week’s ranking: 28) – It is time to talk about Devin Booker. With apologies to Josh Jackson’s emergence, he is the biggest bright spot on the team. He has improved across the board this season. He is still below 40 percent from beyond the arc but his 38.6 percentage comes on over seven shots a game and opposing defenses gameplan to stop him from getting open looks. He is one of the elite shooters in the game. Meanwhile, he worked on being a better rebounder and playmaker and it has payed off for thim. He has shown an improved feel on offense and find the cracks in the defense more easily than he did in his first two seasons. Next year, Booker might be in the conversation for scoring leader. The Suns do not have much shooting around him so that might be an area of focus in this year’s draft. Imagining Booker running pick and rolls with one of the many talented big men in this year’s class is a tantalizing idea.
- Memphis Grizzlies (18-45) (Last week’s ranking: 26) – Memphis may ultimately find themselves with the number one pick. That will leave them with a bevy of options and a tough set of decisions. Many of the top prospects this year are big men but with Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green already on the team, it might be hard to fit them. Would they be willing to draft someone like DeAndre Ayton and trade Gasol? Would they keep both and let Gasol mentor the younger player? The Grizzlies want to compete sooner rather than later, which makes that decision even tougher. It could push them to select a player based on need and fit rather than choosing the best player available. Both strategies have their advantages but needs change while talent remains.
- Sacramento Kings (20-44) (Last week’s ranking: 30) – A couple of wins have played the Kings out of the top (bottom?) spot in the lottery. Fortunately, unlike the Mavericks or Grizzlies, those wins mean something because the players earning them will be on the team next year. The Kings should be careful to walk the fine line of establishing a winning culture without winning too much to deny themselves top lottery talent. The Thunder did this for years and the Sixers took it to another level under Hinkie. In both cases, they had some misfires but they took development seriously and focused on developing good habits. In Philadelphia, the talent was meager but the system and development were top of the class in many ways. It is easy to fire a coach but always much harder to replace him with someone better so hopefully the Kings will be patient with Dave Joerger as they continue the rebuild in Sacramento.
Biggest Mover: Portland Trail Blazers (7)
Biggest Flop: San Antonio Spurs (6)
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