Spurs-Grizzlies Triple-Overtime Thriller Begs for Playoff Rematch

SAN ANTONIO — The Memphis Grizzlies outlasted the San Antonio Spurs in what’s almost certainly emerged as the young season’s most thrilling contest, winning Wednesday night’s triple-overtime marathon by a final score of 117-116.

For fans of the respective clubs who were still awake after the extra frames, opinions about what happened will almost certainly diverge. Impartial observers, however, will unanimously lobby the basketball gods for a modest postseason favor.

More, please.

An instant classic by the final buzzer, this game once seemed like a nonstarter. The Spurs marched back from a 23-point second-quarter deficit, and they did it without leading scorers Tony Parker (hamstring) and Kawhi Leonard (left hand). Even without the multiple encores, the comeback grit created the feel of a game that actually mattered—in December, no less.

Imagine what another playoff series between these franchises might yield. This same Memphis core upset the No. 1-seeded Spurs in 2011′s opening round, back when the Grizzlies were a poster child of dark-horse contention.

And while San Antonio exacted some vengeance more recently with a sweep in the 2013 conference finals, this time might be different.

“I was really proud of them,” head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after the game. “I thought they just squeezed every bit of blood out of a rock that they could. They were tired as heck. Memphis was, too, so it is not an excuse. A lot of guys had to play more minutes than we want them to or they are used to.

“Considering that, I thought they did a great job. Getting down the way they did and playing as poorly to start the game and to start the third quarter. They showed a lot of fortitude. I was really proud of them. I thought they did a great job. We made some errors that are pretty odd, unique-type errors with a couple of passes, rebounds and missed free throws. That is the game. We made too many of those mistakes.”

And Memphis capitalized, showing the poise of a team intent on improving upon last season’s opening-round loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder—although not especially in the event such a push goes through San Antonio.

Having won six consecutive games since losing to the Spurs on Dec. 5, the Grizzlies ended the Golden State Warriors’ 16-game winning streak on Tuesday. A day later, they found themselves in their third overtime contest since a 113-107 win against the Charlotte Hornets on Dec. 12. 

This time, however, one overtime wasn’t nearly enough.

Marc Gasol‘s eighth career three-pointer tied the game at the end of regulation as he stepped through the defense and improbably banked in a straightaway bomb after Memphis inbounded the ball with just 2.5 seconds remaining. Danny Green scored 13 of his team-high 25 points in the quarter, including the three-pointer that had ostensibly secured the game prior to Gasol’s heroics.

Tim Duncan returned the favor with a 16-foot buzzer-beater that sent the game to a third overtime, this time tied at 111 apiece. 

But it was Duncan’s 5-of-15 outing from the free-throw line that left the door wide open for Memphis. Three of those misses came in overtime (the first OT).

With four losses in their last six games, the Spurs still have some kinks to iron out—and presumably some teachable moments that could help toward that end.

“We fought back and pushed it to that level,” Duncan told reporters after the contest. “We felt like we had the game in so many respects at so many different times, only to give it away and get it tied back up. It is what it is, though. We chalk it up as a loss and hopefully learn from it. We need to do better.”

Room for improvement notwithstanding, San Antonio still proved capable of putting on a pretty good show. This season may not entail the urgency of Finals revenge, but the Spurs are still in the business of winning.

A market the Grizzlies are looking to corner these days.

“This was a gut-check type of win for us on the tail end of a back-to-back and in an environment that we haven’t won in for a long time,” point guard Mike Conley said after finishing two rebounds short of a triple-double. “For us to stay mentally focused, withstand the runs, execute down the stretch and make plays regardless of the team, we fought through.”

That fight is nothing new from these Grizzlies, and it’s precisely what makes them compelling entertainment come the postseason—all the more so if San Antonio’s involved. 

The Grizzlies are off to a hot start, and quality wins against teams like San Antonio and Golden State suggest there just might be something to that start. That’s how this locker room sees it, anyway.

“We definitely needed it mentally more than anything,” Conley added. “We have always felt we can match up with them and they are always just one or two plays better. We knew that when we were up by 17 points it was going to be that type of night, a game until the end, and it surely was.”

Memphis and San Antonio will meet twice more this season (on Dec. 30 and March 29), leaving plenty more opportunity for relatively meaningless bragging rights. And if we’re lucky, they might meet a few more times after that—this time for the bragging rights that matter.

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How Jabari Parker’s Injury Affects the Playoff Picture and Rookie of the Year

Jabari Parker was having a strong and promising start to his career and was favored to win Rookie of the Year honors up to this point of the season. However, luck turned on Parker and the Bucks as Parker went down with a knee injury on a drive to the hoop against the Phoenix Suns this week.

The injury report initially suggested it to be a sprained knee; however, reports surfaced the following day, per the Bucks official website, that Parker will be out for the year with a torn ACL.

How much of an impact does Parker’s injury have on Milwaukee’s season? Does this injury impact the Eastern playoff picture?

Find out as Ethan Skolnick breaks down Parker’s injury and the ripple effect it may have on the Eastern Conference in the video above.

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Oklahoma City Thunder Could Wind Up as NBA’s Most Dangerous No. 8 Playoff Seed

Finally healthy, the Oklahoma City Thunder could end being one of the toughest No. 8 seeds in recent memory.

With Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant back in the fold, the Thunder are finally starting to gain momentum. The team has won three straight games and five of its last six. With injuries no longer an obstacle, the next step for Oklahoma City is to march toward a playoff spot. 

At 9-13, OKC is just three games behind the Phoenix Suns for the eighth seed in the West. The magic number going forward is 50 wins. In the last few years, that has been the standard to reach the postseason. That means the club will have to go a ridiculous 41-19 in the final 60 games of the season. 

If that happens, the conference’s other contenders might want to find ways to avoid the Thunder. What top team in the West would want to lead off the postseason against Durant and Westbrook? We could be looking at one of the most dangerous underdogs the league has ever seen. ESPN.com’s Royce Young had this quote from Jared Dudley:

Since the NBA moved its playoff format to 16 teams in 1984, there have been a number of formidable eighth seeds. Last season’s Dallas Mavericks were the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs‘ toughest postseason opponent, stretching the series to seven games. 

Teams such as the 1993-94 Denver Nuggets (over the Seattle Supersonics), 2006-07 Golden State Warriors (over the Mavs), 2010-11 Memphis Grizzlies (over the Spurs) and 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers (over the Chicago Bulls) have pulled first-round upsets over top seeds. 

The 1998-99 New York Knicks are the current standard bearer in terms of making a historic run as an eighth seed. Led by a veteran core of Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and a hobbled Patrick Ewing, the Jeff Van Gundy-coached Knicks made it all the way to the NBA Finals. 

The Cinderella story starts with New York putting the boots to Alonzo Mourning and the rival Miami Heat in Round 1. From there, they broke the brooms out and swept the Atlanta Hawks. Next, the guys from the Garden sent the Indiana Pacers packing. 

The Knicks managed to do this with Ewing playing through an Achilles injury that would eventually keep him out of the championship series against San Antonio.  Team defense was also a big part of New York’s success. The team held opponents to 85.4 points per game (fourth-best) and had a defensive rating of 97.5 (also fourth-best), per Basketball-Reference. That made up for a slow, plodding offense that was 24th in PACE (86.9). 

As impressive as that Knicks run was, the Thunder have the potential to top it if they can sneak into the playoffs this season. 

 

Star Power

The Thunder have more talent than any of those aforementioned eight seeds. Westbrook is the league’s most explosive point guard. Durant is the reigning league MVP. Serge Ibaka is one of the best all-around big men in the game. All three of those guys are 26 years old or younger.  

They are still in the prime of their careers. What’s even scarier is we have yet to see KD at his best so far this season. As he eases his way back from the first major injury of his career, the NBA’s silent assassin has been fighting off rust and picking his spots, as The Oklahoman‘s Berry Tramel pointed out following the team’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks:

Durant, in his fourth game back from a fractured foot, was a little rusty. In the final 80 seconds of the first quarter, Durant threw more interceptions than Jay Cutler. Going into the fourth quarter, Kendrick Perkins had as many shots (nine) as did Durant. Durant finished with four turnovers, all of them on bad passes.

As for Westbrook, he’s already back to playing on an All-Star level. His comeback tour has been littered with highlight-reel dunks such as this putback jam over O.J. Mayo:

Or when he threw the hammer down on the Detroit Pistons.

After watching Durant take home the league’s top individual honor last year, Westbrook is making his own case for MVP with an impressive all-around stat line: 24.5 points, 6.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 48.2 percent from the field and 33.3 from three.  

Next, there’s Ibaka, who led the league in total blocks for four straight years coming into this season. The 25-year-old has broadened his offensive horizons, attempting a career-high 3.6 attempts from downtown. He’s converted 36.7 percent of his treys this season. 

The Republic of the Congo native is still putting in work on the boards (7.2 rebounds) and on the defensive end (2.2 blocks, fourth in the NBA) as well. 

That’s an impressive trio for any playoff team, especially an eighth seed. 

 

Youth and Depth

The lone bright side to the Thunder’s early string of injuries was that it allowed previously unknown players to grow into solid contributors. The biggest breakout has come from guard Reggie Jackson. 

Relegated to a sixth-man role for most of his career, Jackson used Durant and Westbrook’s absence to raise his profile. He’s posted career highs in scoring (17.7 points) and assists (6.4) this season. Now, he feels he’s on par with his All-Star teammate, per HoopsHype.com’s Marc Narducci.

We both want to prove we are the best point guard each day we step on the court. Both believe in ourselves a tremendous amount. I am sure he (Westbrook) thinks he is the best and I do the same.”

Beyond Jackson, OKC has received notable contributions from young players such as Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and Perry Jones. Jones, an afterthought for the first two years of his career, filled in admirably for KD before suffering a knee contusion. 

The 21-year-old Adams is in his first year as the team’s starting center, and he is only scratching the surface on his immense potential. He’s a tough, physical defender who doesn’t get bullied in the paint. Offensively, there’s work to be done, but he’s an improvement over last year’s starter, Kendrick Perkins. 

After an up-and-down start, Lamb is playing the best ball of his career. He’s been a double-digit scorer in five of his last seven games. 

“The thing about Jeremy I always say, once he gets his confidence going, it’s hard to shut off,” Kendrick Perkins said, per Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman. “It’s going right now.”

With Lamb stepping up, the Thunder’s backcourt is now five players deep. Jackson has emerged as a dangerous weapon that provide a spark either as a starter or coming off the bench. Anthony Morrow is one of the best outside shooters in the league. 

Up front, Perkins provides a veteran presence and some tough defense inside. Rookie Mitch McGary could be a contributor at some point this season as well. When you add it all together, this is one of the deepest second units in basketball.

Even better, the group is still young and has room to grow. Perkins and Nick Collison are the only players on the Thunder roster above 29 years old. With key injuries derailing the last two postseasons, that kind of youth and depth will come in handy.

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s rough start was a blessing in disguise. With a playoff spot no longer a formality, these next five months will test this team’s mettle. In the long run, overcoming this adversity will make them even stronger. 

That’s a scary thought for whoever draws them in the postseason. The Thunder are unlike any lower seed we’ve seen before. They have the talent and depth to be a legitimate championship contender.

When’s the last time you could say that about a team at the bottom of the playoff tree?

Note: All stats are current as of Dec. 11 and are courtesy of ESPN.com, unless otherwise noted.  

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How Much Will Pelicans’ Playoff Fate Affect Anthony Davis’ MVP Bid?

If the NBA season ended right now, Anthony Davis would be your 2014-15 MVP in a landslide.

The third-year phenom is dominating every facet of the game for the New Orleans Pelicans. He’s averaging 26.3 points (second-most in the league), 11.4 rebounds (sixth), 3.5 blocks (first) and 2.2 steals (third).

But the 82-game marathon is far from over. And while the playoff-hopeful Pelicans are 7-5 and a half-game out of eighth place in the Western Conference, Davis’ race to the MVP trophy could be brought to a halt if his team fails to make any type of run down the stretch.

Unfortunately for the Big Bad Brow, there are still upwards of 65 games left on the schedule. That leaves enough time for LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden and a handful of other stars to catapult themselves into the conversation for the league’s top individual award.

But if AD keeps producing at his current pace and the Pelicans keep winning, none of those All-Stars has real a shot at keeping him from hoisting his first MVP trophy.

The key word in that sentence—and in Davis’ pursuit of his first MVP trophy—is crucial: Winning.

 

Why Davis Could Win MVP

The 21-year-old is barely old enough to drink, yet he leads the NBA in Win Shares (2.1) and Player Efficiency Rating (35.8) by an enormous margin.

Michael Lee of the Washington Post put Davis’ unreal numbers into perspective: “…Wilt’s best: 31.82. Jordan’s best: 31.71. LeBron’s best: 31.67,” he tweeted on Nov. 18.

Davis is, essentially, a new breed of basketball player. He’s always been a supreme shot-blocker. But in just three short years on the pro level, Davis has crafted himself into one of the game’s most complete all-around players.

After playing as a 6’3″ guard up until his junior year of high school, the lanky Davis sprouted an astounding seven inches in a year. And he might not be done growing, either.

Even at 6’10″, Davis has retained the guard skills he honed for much of his life, making him as well-rounded of a player as there is in the NBA.

“He is one of the game’s elite players right now, for sure,” James said before facing Davis earlier this year, per Jennifer Hale of Fox Sports. “You look at his numbers, points, blocks and steals. If he continues to stay healthy and grow like he’s been doing, he can be a superstar in this league for sure.”

A formerly lean beanpole, Davis has bulked up and gotten a lot stronger, reportedly adding close to 20 pounds since his was measured at the draft combine.

“I’m up to 238 right now. It’s all muscle, and that’s what I need,” Davis said over the summer, per Jim Eichenhofer of NBA.com. “I want to get stronger, so that when I post up, it’s a lot easier for me. I think it’s going to translate to the season, just my mentality, knowing that I’m a lot stronger and a lot better. It’s going to make me more aggressive.”

James, who also said Davis “doesn’t compare to anybody,” has won four of the past six MVP awards. Durant was able to dethrone LBJ last season, though, and according to the 26-year-old Oklahoma City Thunder star, Davis is “next in line.”

Here’s Eichenhofer with more from Durant after a Team USA practice:

I know how good he’s going to be. I know how good he is now, but I know how good he’s going to be. He’s an MVP-caliber player. So he’s next. He’s next in line – a guy that has grown so much in just a year. I’m excited to see what he does from here. He’s definitely on pace.

“It was shocking,” Davis said of KD’s words. “For a guy who knows what it takes to win an MVP award, telling me that I’m on my way, it means he sees something in me. That means a lot, especially from one of the best players in the league right now, if not the best. It just meant a lot. It made me want to work even harder.”

It’s one thing to put up big numbers from time to time, but being the best goes beyond the box scores.

On Nov. 18, the Pelicans took on the Sacramento Kings, a team that has already solidified itself as a legitimate threat this season.

Davis and Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins battled all night. While the Pelican outdueled the King, both were extraordinary. B/R’s Jim Cavan wrote about how the LeBron vs. Durant debate could soon become Davis vs. Cousins.

Here’s Cavan:

Like James and Durant before him, Davis’ arrival was never in doubt. It’s that it happened this quickly and this loudly—long limbs the focused-flailing cues for some chaotic basketball concert—which makes the music all the more magical.

At the rate he’s going, bursting box scores and leading the Pelicans toward their first playoff appearance in four seasons, Davis will remain a serious MVP candidate. Should he snag it, he’d be the youngest player ever to do so, beating Derrick Rose‘s 2010 feat by six months and change.

Davis finished with 28 points, nine boards, three blocks and two steals while Cousins wound up with 24 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks.

Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Kings surging, Davis came up limping after setting a screen. But he continued playing hard, never checked out and led his team to a 106-100 victory.

Four nights later, Davis absolutely erupted for a career-high 43 points on 16-of-23 shots to go along with 14 rebounds in a 106-94 win over the Utah Jazz.

Just a few weeks into the 2014-15 season, the rapidly improving Davis has cemented himself as one of the best players on the planet.

 

Why It’s a Long Shot

Davis will need to continue blowing up stat sheets in order to carve his name onto the league’s storied list of MVPs, but the gaudy numbers carry the same weight as the wins.

And in the wild, wild Western Conference, Davis could struggle to make the Pelicans a contender despite his individual greatness.

Of the 68 times a Most Valuable Player has been announced, just once has the winner failed to carry his team to the postseason: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76.

One time.

The Los Angeles Lakers finished with a 40-42 record that season, which was just one of two instances in league history that the MVP’s team finished with a sub-.500 record. The other came in the first year of the NBA, 1955-56, when Bob Pettit’s St. Louis Hawks finished 33-39 but did in fact make the playoffs.

In 1975-76, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 27.7 points on 52.9 percent shooting, 16.9 rebounds, 4.1 blocks, five assists and 1.5 steals. Abdul-Jabbar was not the general manager, and it wasn’t necessarily his fault the Lakers failed to earn a playoff berth.

Nor will it be Davis’ fault if New Orleans gets left out.

The Pelicans are not a bad team. While they’ve yet to taste the playoffs since Chris Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2011, there has been improvement in recent years.

New Orleans just doesn’t have the amount of depth and talent its conference foes do. Davis is certainly a superstar, but one man can’t do it all.

While Davis’ best teammates, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday, are respectable, the latter is still recovering from injury and the former frequently goes one-on-five.

Here’s what Pro Basketball Talk’s Brett Pollakoff said about AD’s MVP chances in late October:

There’s practically zero chance he wins the MVP this season.

Now, if Davis continues to put up these kinds of numbers, he’ll have a case, at least statistically. It’s just that the award always goes to the best player on one of the league’s top teams, and no matter how dominant Davis is, it’s tough to envision the Pelicans reaching those lofty heights.

Looking back at the past 15 MVP winners, each one played for a team that finished no worse than fourth in the league-wide standings. And, more often than not, the award-winner played for one of the top two regular season teams.

There’s almost no scenario where the Pelicans break into that group this season, which makes the MVP candidacy for Davis more than a long shot — it’s virtually impossible to envision.

Strong words, for sure.

But the hole in that argument is this: No player on any team that’s recently finished “worse than fourth in the league-wide standings” has been as good as Davis.

Is it unfair to punish a guy who, statistically, holds the most value, simply because his team fails to reach the postseason?

Perhaps. But winning—and making your teammates better—is an essential part of being the best.

Take Carmelo Anthony, for example.

‘Melo finished third in MVP voting back in 2012-13 after leading the league in scoring and carrying the 54-win New York Knicks to the playoffs. A year later, Anthony bumped up his rebounds and assists, became a more efficient scorer (from both two- and three-point range) and stepped up his game on the defensive end.

But in 2013-14, the Knicks showed everyone on a nightly basis how not to play basketball. They wound up with an immensely disappointing 37-45 record even while getting the best season of Anthony’s 12-year career.

Anthony finished 15th in MVP voting last season, despite improving in just about every facet of the game.

The Pelicans didn’t enter 2014-15 with the expectations of those Knickerbockers. New Orleans plays in the Southwest—by far the toughest division in basketball—and has to compete in a conference that is worlds better than its Eastern counterpart.

The Southwest is loaded. The San Antonio Spurs (reigning champs), Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies all made the playoffs last year and are very likely to do so again in 2014-15.

Last season, the eighth-seeded Mavericks clawed their way into the final playoff spot with a 49-33 record. The Toronto Raptors finished third in the East at 48-34, and the Atlanta Hawks beat out those dreadful Knicks to clinch the eighth-spot with a 38-44 record.

Seven of the West’s eight representatives from a year ago will likely be there again—the four returning Southwest squads along with the Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors.

Thanks to the injuries to Durant and fellow star Russell Westbrook, the Thunder would be the only team that could conceivably fall out of contention in the West.

Despite the odds stacked against his team, Davis sees the ‘Cans as playoff-bound. Here’s what he told Eichenhofer:

Year 2 to Year 3, I just want to get better. All my numbers I had last year, I want to see increase. I want to try to stay healthy and play at least 75 games. When I’m healthy and the whole team’s healthy, we’ll be a playoff team. We definitely had the pieces we need to be that team. Unfortunately last year, we were all hurt. I think that’s going to change.

Davis certainly has the right mentality. But the Kings are the real deal and so are the Phoenix Suns. If Durant and Westbrook come back soon enough, OKC may jump back into the fray, too.

So for New Orleans, making the postseason will not be easy.

And therefore, questions about Davis’ MVP chances will be fair game until he puts the Pelicans on his broad shoulders and does what Most Valuable Players do and, save for the anomaly that was Abdul-Jabbar, have always done:

Carry his team to the postseason.

 

All stats are accurate as of Nov. 24, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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Are The Thunder Still A Playoff Team?

Tweet The Oklahoma City Thunder have been considered one of the NBA’s elite teams over the past couple of seasons. They’ve made the postseason 5 years in a row, averaged 54 wins across these seasons and have won 4 division titles. Last year Kevin Durant won the league’s MVP award and the Thunder advanced to the Western Conference Finals.
This year has been quite different, with the Thunder off to a pretty bad start. They rank amongst the league’s worst in points and have suffered an incredible number of injuries. Superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both injured. Durant has a fractured foot that will sideline him until December – possibly even into 2015. Point guard Russell Westbrook is out for the next month or two with a fractured right hand. The tandem of Durant and Westbrook combined made for an average of 54 points per game last season. It’s no surprise then that their presence has been sorely missed.
In addition to the injuries to Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder’s supporti

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Playoff preview? LeBron, Cavs top Bulls for first win

If this was a prelude to a playoff matchup, we’re in for a treat in June.

      
 

 

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Westbrook injury could bite Thunder come playoff time

The Thunder, without their two best players, now must worry about playoff seeding, too.

      
 

 

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Los Angeles Lakers: 3 Guards Are Their Playoff Key

(Source: Jeff Gross/Getty Images North America)…
Los Angeles Lakers: 3 Guards Are Their Playoff Key
By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…
With Steve Nash injured, Kobe Bryant healthy and Jeremy Lin the starter, can their excellent offensive guard trio of Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Lin and Nick Young be the most productive 3-man-guard-unit in the NBA this season? Yes. A Jeremy Lin-Kobe Bryant starting guard duo isn’t as talented as John Wall-Bradley Beal or Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson, but with Nick Young one of the best sixth men in the NBA, they could be the most productive trio.
Nick Young is injured and will miss the 1st few weeks of the season, but once healthy, this is how I see their guards producing…
Jeremy Lin: 16 points, 6 assists per game
Role: Main distributor and secondary scorer in the starting 5. Team’s 2nd option.
Kobe Bryant: 22 points, 5 assists per game
Role: Main scorer and secondary distributor in the starting 5. Team’s 1st option.
Nick Young: 16 points, 3 ass…

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Love’s eager for playoff credibility with Cavs

Kevin Love has proven himself as a top-tier NBA talent but never reached the postseason.

      
 

 

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Love’s eager for playoff credibility with LeBron’s Cavs

Kevin Love has proven himself as a top-tier NBA talent but never reached the postseason.

      
 

 

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