Mark's Mailbag: 2020 All-Star Break Edition

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Editor's Note: Some Mailbag questions have been edited for clarity and length.

Q. This team has been completely overhauled (for the better) but still seems destined for another first-round playoff exit. The only two variables that could change this are Vic hitting his stride and really elevating his game or Myles playing to his potential (somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 points and 12 rebounds per game). Neither seems likely this year.

The obvious missing piece is a 4 (power forward) that can rebound and play defense all over the court against the best players in the league. Who is a likely offseason addition to fill this need and what might the Pacers have to give up to get such a player?

— Larry

A. This is going to sound like a copout answer, and it's going to have to be repeated throughout this mailbag, but it's nearly impossible to identify offseason needs with this much time left in the season. The Pacers' season is just getting underway in a very real sense. The intended starting lineup has opened a game twice now. Oladipo's return tweaks everybody's role, so it's too soon to pass judgment.

However, I don't think it's reasonable to expect Turner to average 18 points and 12 rebounds — not unless you're going to direct the focus of the offense his way and reduce the role of other starters.

Here's the dilemma, and why Turner deserves credit for being the "fall guy" in the offense for accepting fewer shots than the other starters: You already have two players averaging more than 18 points — T.J. Warren and Domantas Sabonis. Both are shooting better than 50 percent, so I don't think you want to reduce their roles. Malcom Brogdon averages 16.6 but was at 17.8 after 31 games. As the point guard running off all those high screens, he's going to have plenty of scoring opportunities. And now you have Oladipo, who averaged 23.1 two seasons ago and 18.8 last season. He should be somewhere near 18 as well, shouldn't he? I would imagine he views that as a bare minimum given his previous production.

Which begs the question, can a team have five 18-point scorers in its starting lineup? That's never happened before in the history of the NBA, not even on the historically good teams. I found one, the Philadelphia 76ers of the 1976-77 season, that had four players average at least 18, but even that is highly unusual.

It comes down to the fact someone in every starting lineup is going to have to play a supporting role. This group should have great balance, but I can't imagine all five will average around 18 points. Turner is getting fewer than 10 shots per game. Oladipo should be able to get him some easy shots off penetration, but Oladipo also is going to be taking more shots than Jeremy Lamb took as a starter (10.6) once he gets to playing starter minutes.

You can find a power forward who improves rebounding, someone out of the Dale Davis and Jeff Foster mold, but you're going to give up 3-point shooting and floor spacing that creates penetration opportunities for players such as Oladipo. And to get a high-level player along that line obviously would require giving up a premier player.

Again, we just need to see what this team becomes and reassess in June/July.

Q. Was the losing streak more about: establishing roles, rebounding, perimeter defense, or offensive execution?

The Toronto game hurt worse than the Bogey inbound to Terry.

— James

A. You're referring to the game in Toronto, when the Pacers blew a 10-point lead with 2 1/2 minutes remaining. That was indeed painful. Sometimes good things come out of those kind of losses, though. They require self-examination on the part of both players and coaches and can be a motivation for change.

The game you reference when Bojan Bogdanovic threw a panicky lob pass that was intercepted by Boston's Terry Rozier is a prime example. (It wasn't an inbound pass, by the way, although it's often remembered that way.) The players rallied around Bogdanovic and the coaches maintained their confidence in him, and ultimately that seemed to make him feel more of part of the team's fabric and a better player.

As for the losing streak, it was a multiple-choice test. I'd rank establishing roles at the top of the list of answers, but the other factors you listed were certainly part of it. And, you have to give credit to the opponents. If Serge Ibaka and Joe Harris each miss one more 3-pointer or Kristaps Porzingis doesn't have his best offensive game of the season we're having an entirely different conversation.

Q. You think Malcom was tired before the break? How was the locker room during the six-game loss? Also, what is your prediction on how they fair in the playoffs?

— Tyler

A. I do. He didn't use that as an excuse before the break but acknowledged after the game with Milwaukee that he had been worn down by the concussion and strep throat that kept him out of games. His play reflected that, although his was more himself against the Bucks.

As for a prediction, I don't know what to think of the team as currently assembled. We've only seen two games with the intended starters and we don't know (1) how well Oladipo can play this season and (2) how well he can be integrated into the offense. The last pre-break game against Milwaukee was encouraging, I thought.

Regardless, it will be difficult to move into a top-four position in the Eastern Conference unless one of the teams currently in those spots has a major injury issue and falters. They show no signs of dropping as they stand. Miami just lost four out of five games on a Western road trip, but has an easier schedule the rest of the way than the Pacers.

Should the Pacers lose again in the first round of the playoffs I'm sure there will be a lot of anguish among fans, not to mention many of those within the franchise. If so, depending on the circumstances of the exit — who played well, how competitive they were, etc. — it might be a time for (even more) patience and tweaks rather than an overhaul. It's a "new" team that has gone through an injury-plagued season, which isn't generally a prescription for major changes.

In the early 90's, the Pacers endured four consecutive seasons in which they finished within one game of .500 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. There was a major outcry among fans and media for major changes, but general manager Donnie Walsh — whose own job security was called into question — kept his head about him and gradually built the team that reached the conference five times in the next seven seasons.

Obviously, for this team to go beyond the first round it will need to establish a fluid chemistry that brings out everyone's strengths — and have a break or two along the way, starting with the health of the key players.

Q. Have you ever sat in on a Pacers pregame pep talk?

Do they have guests come in and pep up the team ever?

Does the team get pissed off at halftime? Not the pointing fingers type, rather do they ever yell what they need to do the second half?

Do you ever question the rotation during the game? Especially with Victor back. I would hate for them to lose the second rotation spark.

— Gdd310

A. I have not sat in on a Pacers pre-game session. I have been in many of those for Purdue teams, having followed three of them while working on book projects. I feel safe in saying that the "pep talks" for NBA teams are more informational than inspirational. The rah-rah stuff doesn't wear well over an 82-game season. That's even true for a lot of college teams, which play fewer than half as many games.

There might be the occasional game when a team has been struggling and the coach shows more emotion while speaking with them, but that approach is generally saved for halftime or timeouts. If you go all-in on trying to fire up a team before the game, it would have to be such a monumental speech that it would be remembered after the lengthy pre-game warmup period and the introduction of the starting lineups.

Besides that, the games are so long that any impact of something that happens before the game is likely to wear off by the end of the first quarter. And, as you might know, I'm not a fan of fast starts anyway. They tend to lead to lulls, and those lulls can be difficult to overcome. Better to fall behind — that can fire up a team as well as anything. We all sharpen our focus in times of a crisis.

I have not heard of the Pacers or another NBA bringing in a guest speaker before the game. That would be more likely to happen after a practice. But even then, it's rare. The players are adults and less likely to be inspired by an outsider. That would be more common for a college team — and the best guest speaker for a college team likely would be a professional player. It would have to be someone hugely admired outside of basketball to bring energy to an NBA team, I would think. The best example I can think of related to the Pacers is when Muhammad Ali attended a game in the 1999-2000 season. The players seemed excited just to have him there, and were practically showing off for him during the game. Which they won. He came in the locker room afterward and they were like little kids. Jalen Rose was really proud of the fact Ali had come up with a little poem for him on the spot: "Jalen Rose, I'll bust your nose!"

As for becoming angry with one another at halftime, I would hope so. Every team worth anything has a culture in which players are willing to challenge one another and captains who know how to talk with underperforming players.

That, of course, assumes the captains are performing. If not, things get awfully shaky. Most of the halftime anger, though, is going to come from the coaches. The so-called pep talk is likely to have more impact there than before the game. Sometimes the head coach can utilize an assistant coach in that role if he's not the type to go off on a team. I remember Rick Carlisle using Mike Brown that way. Carlisle wasn't a screamer by nature; it just didn't fit his personality. But Brown had enough respect from the players to get after them a few times, either in a huddle or at halftime. My impression, though, is that McMillan is fully capable of handling that task himself.

I don't question the rotation often. I think that's one of Nate McMillan's strengths, in fact. He doesn't stay married to a pre-game plan and goes with the flow of the game. He's not afraid to finish a close game with a lineup that didn't start the game. I know some fans wonder why a certain player doesn't play more, but the follow-up question to that is "Who plays less?" That's usually tough to answer. You can criticize rotation decisions after every loss, but every team loses close games over the course of the season.

As for the current situation, Oladipo has to start for the Pacers to achieve their potential. And there's enough talent on the bench to bring a spark if they're playing as they're capable.

Q. Do you think it is an issue that Domas is top 10 in touches per game in the NBA? Should these duties be more on Malcolm, or are the Domas touches good for the flow of the offense?

— Luke

A. I believe Sabonis touches are a good thing. He's a capable passer, and from his position in the low post or near the free throw line he has a lot of options. The Pacers need all the ball movement they can get to take advantage of their balanced scoring, and Sabonis is best equipped to facilitate it. His assist-to-turnover ratio isn't great, but he's a willing passer and many of his passes lead to layups or wide-open shots.

Obviously, a lot of his touches become shot attempts, and that's OK, too. He's shooting better than 50 percent from the field. He might want to curtail his 3-point shooting, given his plunged percentage, unless he can get that shot going in practice first.

I also believe his touches will go down a bit as Oladipo establishes himself among the starters. This team will be at its best when everybody is involved in the offense with a roughly equal amount of touches once the first pass has been made.

Victor Oladipo

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

Q. How long until Oladipo fits in?

— John C

A. The process will be complete on March 10, when the Pacers play Boston.

Just kidding. It's impossible to predict and will be a gradual process.

We also might disagree on a definition for "fits in." But for it to happen in any form will require some sacrifice on his part, which he showed in the two games leading up to the All-Star break, as well as the willingness of the other players to adjust to his promising presence. The Pacers have always been a far better team when he limits his shot production — not necessarily to seven attempts, which he had in the victory over Milwaukee, but certainly less than the 17 he took in 23 minutes in the loss to Dallas.

Q. I noticed that the Pacers played zone defense a time or two against Milwaukee. Do you think they will start playing more zone?

In my opinion, I think zone may be the best defense when Myles and Domas are on the floor together.

— Bruce

A. They also played zone defense a few times in the game against Brooklyn, which preceded the one against Milwaukee. Nate McMillan and Dan Burke had always been man-to-man coaches, and Brogdon says he has always personally favored man-to-man defense. But they hadn't been defending as well recently and decided to make a change.

I expect it to stay in the game plan if it proves effective, but in limited doses. It could indeed improve rebounding by keepsing Sabonis and Turner closer to the basket. But a lot of coaches believe zones make defenders lazy and slow the pace of the game. A zone is a reactive defense that probably doesn't create as many turnovers. A man-to-man is more proactive and is more likely to lead to a pick-six type of turnover that leads to a layup at the other end. Zones in the NBA usually have the greatest impact as a method of changing the pace of a game and throwing the opponent's offense out of sync, at least temporarily.

Q. After watching Goga now for 50+ games can you access whether he is a legit post player on a contending team in the NBA yet?

— Tim

A. It's too early, because he's a 20-year-old rookie who is averaging 8 1/2 minutes of action per game. But I do think he will develop into a solid center, at minimum. Although he's not shooting well from the 3-point line, yet his form is good, and he's been at least an average 3-point shooter in the past.

I'm assuming by "post player" you mean center, and not a post-up player. We haven't seen a lot of post-ups from him yet, but he seemed to score well out of the low post in Europe. Given his length, agility, ability to run the floor, and willingness to mix it up around the basket, I see no reason why he can't become a good NBA center.

Q. The Golden State Warriors, mainly out of necessity, have thrown in the towel on this season after opening up a brand new billion-dollar arena in San Franchise and are collecting multiple draft picks. Is there any way the Pacers would ever do this type of total rebuild in your opinion?

— Tim

A. I doubt it. They haven't been in a situation similar to the Warriors, who are a league-worst 12-43 at the break, since the mid-80's, when they won 26 games or fewer in four straight seasons. They've always had at least a core of players to build around.

As you mentioned, the Warriors aren't tanking by design. It was forced upon them by injury and they are rolling with it. If the Pacers were in a similar circumstance they might do the same, but they've never had a run of injuries such as the Warriors have had.

I still contend tanking is a highly questionable strategy. It's one thing to accept a season as a lost cause and unload some players for draft picks or to dump salary. The only team that's truly utilized it as a long-term strategy is Philadelphia, and all these years later it hasn't yet paid off. Some of the Sixers' high lottery picks are playing elsewhere (Jrue Holiday, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Michael-Carter Williams, and Markelle Fultz), and this season's team is just two games ahead of the Pacers in the standings.

A large-market team has the population base to support a losing team reasonably well, but small-market teams don't have that luxury. And, there's a lot to be said for the integrity of not tanking.

Q. I know we are trying to win games and McConnell has been very good but are we making a mistake by not giving Aaron Holiday more minutes so he can develop? Is he a likely trade candidate this summer?

— David

Q. Are the Pacers stunting the growth and progress of Aaron Holiday in your opinion now that Oladipo is back and seems to be the odd man out? What is the ceiling for Aaron Holiday? Have we seen it already? Is he a trade piece in the offseason now? He doesn't seem to fit now.

— Tim

A. McMillan prefers a nine-man rotation and someone had to drop out of it. That turned out to be Aaron Holiday, and I can't argue with that decision. T.J. McConnell has been the better backup point guard and Holiday can no longer play backup shooting guard if Lamb is going to slip to that role.

It is McMillan's job to win games more than develop players. He gets blamed for just about every loss, it seems, so imagine the reaction if he sacrificed wins for the development of younger players. Holiday has played plenty this season and has had ample opportunity to claim a place in the rotation. He's not played as well as McConnell, though, and it's not like McConnell is an over-the-hill veteran. He's 27, well shy of Medicare enrollment, and can still improve.

It's up to Holiday to earn his way into the rotation. The same could be said for other promising out-of-the-rotation players such as Edmond Sumner and Alize Johnson. It's easy to feel sorry for guys like them when you know how hard they've worked and seen their promise, but that's the harsh reality of the NBA. Nobody understands that better than McMillan, who's seen it all in his career as a player and coach and doesn't allow himself to get too sentimental over the players out of the rotation.

Holiday has at times looked like a player with a high ceiling but goes through stretches in which he doesn't seem engaged or makes poor decisions. McMillan hasn't been afraid to bench him at those times, and always seems to get results — for a while, at least. For example, after McMillan benched him in that home loss to the Clippers, Holiday went on a nine-game spree in which he averaged 16.4 points on 52 percent shooting. But that was followed by an eight-game run in which he averaged 8.3 points on 35 percent shooting.

As with every player on the roster, he's a trade piece if he can bring a player who improves the team. But that's too far into the future to even consider.

Q. What is realistically the best-case scenario for this team for the remainder of this season? How far can this team realistically go in the playoffs in your opinion? And what things need to happen to reach that? Does it all come down to Oladipo's continued progress?

— Tim

A. My story posted on Monday mostly answers these questions. It doesn't all come down to Oladipo's progress, although that's the first order of business. It's also about Brogdon staying healthy and finding chemistry with Oladipo as well as Turner being a greater factor, as he was in the win over Milwaukee before the break.

Let's face it, reaching one of the top four seeds in the East will be difficult, although it could happen if one or two of the teams ahead of the Pacers has major injury issues. Still, the Pacers should be able to compete with any of those teams, with the possible exception of Milwaukee, if they maintain good health and find good chemistry.

Q. If you were the Pacers general manager for a day and the goal was to get this team back to the Eastern Conference Finals, how would you go about it? Trade pieces and collect draft picks and try to get a lottery pick? Or do what the current front office is doing?

— Tim

A. For now, the best approach is to stay the course. Because — here we go again — we don't know what this team can become. Maybe this is the time to remind that the Pacers team that first reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 1994 had lost in the first round of the playoffs the four previous seasons. Reggie Miller was then in his seventh season with the team. Rik Smits was in his sixth. Dale Davis was in his third. It had been given time to grow together while the roster was tweaked around those three.

It's awfully difficult to trade for a lottery pick. You would have to give up a star-caliber player to do so, so why would you do that unless you were overloaded at a position? You probably would be hoping to get a player as good as the one you gave away. And if you could do such a trade, you're getting younger and prolonging the building process — and that's assuming you hit on the draft pick.

Q. Do you think there is something wrong with Brogdon? I'm speaking from a physical health perspective. He had a good game (against Milwaukee) but he doesn't look like the same player he was earlier in the season.

— Tim

A. Brogdon acknowledged after the win over Milwaukee, in which he scored 10 points and passed out five assists in the fourth quarter, that he had felt worn down by the dog days of the season and his health issues — most recently, a concussion and strep throat. He said that game was the first in a while in which he felt like himself.

It's clear the Pacers need him at his best to have a chance to compete with the elite teams in the East. He had health issues with Milwaukee, so that's a major factor going forward.

Q. Myles looked really good (against Milwaukee). Solid on the defensive end as usual, but also aggressive offensively, not passing up open looks. Has the coaching staff been on him to be more aggressive in his ever-changing role?

— Sloovy

A. Turner scored 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against Milwaukee. He had 12 of his points in the first half, hitting 5-of-7 shots, and he hit all three of his shots, including a 3-pointer, in the first quarter.

He was clearly more energetic and assertive in that game. The coaching staff has always wanted him to be that way, but he seems to have to remind himself of that now and then. I can understand his dilemma, though. He has had to accept a subordinate role in the offense with this group and has accepted that gracefully. There's a fine line between accepting a role and being too passive, though. He needs to be a scoring threat to keep defenses honest, but if he looks for his shot too aggressively, he might take good shots away from someone else.

The first quarter of the game against the Bucks could serve as a template for the Pacers going forward. Sabonis took six shots, Warren took five, Turner took three, Oladipo took two, and Brogdon took one. I'm not saying Oladipo should take the second-fewest shots in a game, but that kind of balance — regardless of who's taking how many shots — is a good thing. Everyone was involved and the Pacers took a 34-20 lead. Although Brogdon took just one shot (and hit it) he had five assists and just one turnover. He emerged in the fourth quarter, taking five shots and scoring 10 points.

This team needs balance to beat the better teams, and Turner needs to be part of that balance most nights. His primary responsibility is to defend the rim and rebound, but the more he can stretch the defense by posing a 3-point threat and hit midrange shots, the better.

Domantas Sabonis

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

Q. How long into a season before a player realizes he doesn't have a particular shot in his arsenal? Say what you want about Ben Simmons, but he doesn't take shots that aren't high-percentage shots. I don't understand why Sabonis keeps on shooting the 3-pointer.

— Nate

A. Sabonis' 3-point percentage is one of the Pacers' greater mysteries. He was a good shooter behind the arc his previous three seasons, but suddenly and inexplicably has lost his long-range touch so far this season.

This might be difficult to believe now, but as a rookie with Oklahoma City there was a night when the Thunder went into Boston and Sabonis hit four of six 3-pointers as a power forward playing next to Steven Adams. He scored 20 points, 12 of them from behind the 3-point arc. He only had one rebound, but no worries! He was there to score and spread the defense. At that point of the season, 30 games in, he was hitting 44 percent of his 3-point attempts and seemingly had established himself as a perimeter scoring threat.

But he hadn't. He hit the rookie wall at that point, making just one of his next 25 3-point attempts, and finished the season a 32 percent shooter from behind the arc. He showed more promise after the trade to the Pacers, though, hitting 35 percent of his 37 attempts two seasons ago and 53 percent of his 17 attempts last season.

Why he's only hitting 22 percent this season (13-of-58), is hard to say. I don't believe his shooting form is as pure as it was as a rookie, but that's difficult to dissect. He's also dropped off from the foul line since the start of the season. After shooting 78 percent in his first 25 games by seemingly finding the right degree of knee bend, he hit 68 percent in the 27 games that followed. He might need work with a shooting coach to tweak his form and build confidence. But you'll happily take him as is, if necessary.

Q. Have you seen anything that does or does not suggest Vic will be able to return to the player he was two years ago?

— Erik

A. You should be encouraged by the fact he still gets around like he used to. He's defended well and played physically by drawing six charging fouls in his seven games. I said from the first time I saw him as a Pacer he was the fastest player in franchise history getting from one end of the court to the other, and he still seems to have his speed.

His shooting (33 percent overall, 24 percent from 3-point range) will improve, obviously. Keep in mind, even Michael Jordan's shooting percentage dropped significantly, to a career-low 41 percent, when he returned for the final 17 games of the 1994-95 season after taking time off for baseball — and Jordan hadn't been injured.

Two seasons ago, Oladipo hit 48 percent of his field goal attempts, 37 percent of his 3-point shots, and 80 percent of his free throws. His percentages all dropped last season, however, to levels unbecoming of an All-Star. If he can recapture the shooting touch of his first season with the Pacers, they'll be dangerous. He'll put in the time on the practice court, we'll just have to see if he can do it.

Q. Your opinion, how good is the defense Warren has played? Top 10 in the league, 20, 30 ...? What's he have to improve to make an all-defensive team? Would love to hear Burke's thoughts.

— Kez

A. I wouldn't know how to rank Warren defensively. He doesn't rank highly in the advanced analytics that apply to defense, but he certainly passes the eye test.

The most recent example is the win over Milwaukee before the break, which probably inspired your question. He played a major role in limiting All-Star Khris Middleton to 17 points on 6-of-17 shooting in that game, and his performance was better than those numbers indicate.

Two of Middleton's three 3-pointers came off other defenders (Oladipo and Sabonis) and the third came over Warren in transition. Middleton got a layup after Turner couldn't get to him in time to block the shot after Warren had been blocked on a screen, and Middleton's two free throws were the result of a foul on Jeremy Lamb.

Middleton didn't play in one of the earlier meetings with the Pacers but had just 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting in the other, mostly against Warren's defense.

Warren proves, as Bojan Bogdanovic before him, that most players will conform to their environment. If defense is demanded and taught, they will play it well. Not everyone is physically capable of being a great defender, but most NBA players can be respectable. Warren is beyond respectable. He promised at the beginning of training camp that he would defend, and he has.

Q. Does the coaching staff and the front office actually believe that they can win a playoff round (much less two) in the Eastern Conference by only playing two guys who are as tall as 6-foot-9? Given that the two guys who are 6-foot-8 (Warren and McDermott) are scorers and defenders, but are not rebounders by any stretch of the imagination, does the coaching staff and the front office make any connection between the lack of size and physicality of the rotation players, and the rebounding challenges that the team obviously has?

— Stephen

A. I would guess the front office does indeed believe the team can win as structured, although it's important to remember this is essentially a first-year group what with all the new faces and changes to the starting lineup. Given the injuries, we haven't seen what this team can be.

Rebounding has been an issue, certainly. The Pacers have given up 2.6 rebounds per game on average. It's difficult to translate that to points, but we all know it's important. But 3-point shooting has been at least as big an issue. They've been outscored from behind the arc by an average of 3.7 points per game. They've lost six games by three points or less, so it's not difficult to see the difference that can make. Give them six more wins and they're a half-game out of third place — with Oladipo barely being a part of it.

You also are assuming more height would mean more rebounds. That's not necessarily true. The Pacers give up a lot of long rebounds from missed perimeter shots and one can argue the perimeter players are most responsible for the rebounding deficit. And if you did add size to the reserve unit, you likely would sacrifice scoring.

If size is the answer, though, solutions are readily available. Bitadze rebounds better on a per-minute basis than any of the rotation players. Or, you could play TJ Leaf more often. He's second on the team in rebounding on a per-minute basis, behind only Sabonis. But if you play one of them, or any other big man, who do you sit? Doug McDermott, one of the NBA's best 3-point shooters and a player who moves well without the ball? Justin Holiday, a 42 percent 3-point shooter and one of their best perimeter defenders?

Keep in mind that last season's champion, Toronto was only the 17th-best rebounding team but was an outstanding defensive team and outscored opponents from the 3-point line by a wide margin. The Golden State championship team of 2018 ranked eighth in 3-point percentage but just 17th in rebounding. Cleveland's championship team of 2019 ranked second in 3-point scoring and percentage but was outrebounded over the course of the season.

As shooters become more accurate, rebounding isn't as important in today's NBA because there are fewer rebounds to get. That's not to say it isn't important, but if you're looking to improve the Pacers, start behind 3-point line.

Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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