Requiem for a bench

The Suns' magical and memorable bench.

The Suns' magical and memorable bench.

The Pacers-Heat series has been the best matchup of the second round, hands down. With Phoenix’s season over, I have no vested interest in any one team, but I still find myself pulling for the Pacers every time they take the court. At first, I dismissed this as the anti-Heat sentiment that seems to have permeated every corner of the NBA landscape save South Beach.

But as I watched Louis Amundson, Leandro Barbosa, and the rest of the Pacers’ reserves hold their ground against the surging Heat on Sunday, I flashed back to the 2010 playoffs and suddenly understood my support of Indiana.

Though there have been more talented squads during the Steve Nash era in Phoenix, the 2010 Suns team that made a surprise run to the Western Conference Finals is the sentimental favorite of many Phoenix fans. That team, which had missed the playoffs the previous season, wasn’t expected to do much that year. They ended up grabbing the third seed in the West and finished just three games behind the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.

That team won a first-round playoff series for the first time in three years. Then they exorcised the demon that was the San Antonio Spurs with a stake-through-the-heart sweep. Then they came within a Kobe airball-Ron Artest putback of taking a 3-2 lead in the conference finals before losing Game 6 at home. To say that team overachieved is an understatement, but that only explains part of the fans’ love for them. Another major factor was the bench.

The reserves, the second unit, or “the other guys” — you can call them whatever you want. The five-man bench of Channing Frye, Louis Amundson, Jared Dudley, Leandro Barbosa, and Goran Dragic was one of the biggest reasons the Suns were so successful that year. What made them special was how they played as a unit. There are few teams in the league that can sit all five starters for periods of the game without totally imploding on the court. That Suns’ bench was different. They could not only hold a lead in an important game, they could extend it.

The best example of this was Game 3 of the second round against San Antonio. The Suns had taken the first two games of the series at home, but trailed by one heading into the fourth quarter. The second unit was on, spelling the starters (in researching this column, I realized that Grant Hill was on the floor in the fourth instead of Louis Amundson. Amundson was no doubt waving a towel very vigorously on the sidelines, though.)

Goran Dragic proceeded to score 23 points in the quarter. The Suns pulled away from the Spurs and won the game by 14. Though they still needed to notch another win to advance, the bench’s performance in that quarter won the series for Phoenix. San Antonio watched its lead slip away with Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash, and Jason Richardson on the bench. The Spurs knew right then and there they couldn’t win and bowed out of the postseason just one game later.

For Phoenix, that game took the team’s confidence to a whole new level. Sure, they had won six playoff games already, which was five more than they had won in the previous two seasons. But to finally best the Spurs and do it with an outstanding effort from 10 guys as opposed to just the All-Stars was a revelation to that team. That performance was what spurred them to make the series with the eventual-champion Lakers so hard fought. It was games like Game 3 in San Antonio that forever endeared that team to Phoenix fans everywhere.

Despite how you feel about the break up of that team the following summer, if you’re like me, you still enjoy watching all five of those guys play. Jared Dudley and Channing Frye have moved into the Suns’ starting lineup. Dudley has truly maximized his abilities and become a solid wing in the NBA. He had his best year as a pro this season, setting career highs in points, assists, and rebounds per game (for those of you who hate per game stats, he surpassed or came close to his career highs in the per-minute stat categories as well).

Channing Frye is still the rare combination of size and range that helped the Suns stretch defenses in 2010. However, he just had his worst season in a Suns uniform as his stats and shooting numbers were down across the board.

Goran Dragic aka The Dragon is about to make a lot of money for a skinny kid from Slovenia. Dragic played incredibly well for the Rockets this year especially when Kyle Lowry was hurt. He had career highs in points, assists, and PER. His play was almost enough to keep Houston in the playoff picture without their two best players. Goran will be the third-best point guard in this year’s free agent class behind Steve Nash and Deron Williams. He is also the youngest of the three.

And finally, as I mentioned before, Louis Amundson and Leandro Barbosa are still doing the things that made them fan favorites and integral members of the Suns’ squad. They just do them in Indianapolis now. Barbosa is still one of the fastest players in the league with the ball in his hands. He, along with teammate Darren Collison, provides speed, ball handling, and scoring off the bench for the Pacers. Amundson is still a gritty and energetic big man who grabs rebounds and throws the occasional elbow (sorry, Udonis). It’s a pleasure to watch these guys to continue to play hard as the Pacers fight to advance past the vaunted Heat and their pair of superstars.

Looking forward, the Suns should look to recapture the magic of that memorable bench unit. If this season has proven anything it’s that depth is king in the NBA. The Spurs, who have been the most dominant team in the postseason by far, go 10 players deep almost every single night. This depth allows them to save the legs of their older superstars.

If the Suns bring back Steve Nash and Grant Hill, the San Antonio recipe would be a good one to follow, and the Suns may already have some of the ingredients. Sebastian Telfair has shown he can be a solid backup point guard. Robin Lopez is a former starter who brings toughness and rebounding to a team much in need of both. Both players will continue to mature and carve out their roles on the team.

Michael Redd, if he returns, is a good bench scorer. He showed this season that he has recovered from the injuries that cost him almost three full seasons. Though he’s not back to the form that earned him a spot on the 2008 Redeem Team, he can still shoot, score, and compete in the NBA. Markieff Morris had a strong rookie campaign. He was definitely inconsistent, but that’s nothing new for rookies in the NBA. I think he’ll be a factor in Phoenix for a long time and could challenge for the starting PF spot this year.

This is where the questions about the Suns’ roster start to rise. Is Channing Frye better coming off the bench? The answer is most definitely maybe. Will the Suns keep Shannon Brown? Probably not. Brown played just well enough this season to get a multi-year deal from some team. If Lon Babby is true to his word about the franchise’s new spending strategy, that team will not be the Suns. Will Grant Hill reprise his role as defensive stopper/small forward? There is no way to tell. Injuries sidelined Hill for the last month of the season, and he is staring 40 right in the face. His future with the team will likely be tied to Nash’s, but that’s another column for another time. In the interim, I’ll be cheering for the Pacers, pulling for Dragic to land with a good team, and happily reminiscing about the most memorable bench there ever was.

And 1

  • Suns assistant coach Bill Cartwright will not be returning to the team next season, according to this report by Paul Coro, as the Suns have decided not to renew his contract for next season. This news will perhaps impact Robin Lopez the most. Cartwright was a mentor to the Suns’ young center, and Robin credits him with the improvements he’s made as a player. “I think actually it’s mostly come from Bill Cartwright,” Lopez said. Cartwright won three championships as a player with Michael Jordan and the Bulls. He has been an assistant coach in the NBA for 13 seasons.
  • Be sure to catch Amundson in Battleship. For some reason he’s credited as Taylor Kitsch.

Tags: Bench Channing Frye Goran Dragic Jared Dudley Leandro Barbosa Louis Amundson Phoenix Suns

  • Ty-Sun

    Good read. That was a very special bench unit that, unfortunately, won’t ever get back together no matter how much some fans wish it to be. Dragic will likely be starting somewhere in the NBA in the next year. I doubt Amundson and Barbosa will be leaving Indiana anytime soon since they’ve both proved their value there. Dudley and Frye are of course still with the Suns but both are starting now and neither of them will be moving back to the second unit unless Michael Redd suddenly returns to his old pre knee injury form and Morris makes dramatic improvement in his game during the off season. I would love to see both happen but I don’t expect either. Dudley and Frye are both above average bench players but below average starters IMO. They’re “tweeners” which actually hurts the Suns by having to start both of them.

    But I’ve loved watching the Indiana/Miami series too and cheer for both Barbosa and Amundson whenever they are on the court. They’ll always be Suns to me no matter what uniforms they wear. :)

  • roger rose

    I wish we can take AMUNDSON and BARBOSA back for a reasonable price next season. DRAGIC will get more money so i think it will be hard to get hime back here. NASH can still play at a high level and i wish we can also have him back for a good price plus some really good players. Get our bench back like in 2o10 and add 2 good players who play SG and PF then we have a playoff team who can challenge and play really good. CHEMISTRY, COHESION, CAMARADERIE are the keys to be a good team! if that can happen ill be more than happy for the SUNS! hope FRONT OFFICE reading this article. we make mistakes in our life but, we can always correct if we want it. MONEY is the biggest thing to keep a GOOD team in this business. Honestly, if only im a millionaire i will contribute some money to keep the team intact. GO SUNS..

  • Scott

    Despite what fans and maybe even Suns staff might say now, that bench was under-appreciated even after that playoff run. What I was seeing on comment boards all over at the time was that Dudley was the only one on the bench that fans wanted to keep, and that was because of his attitude and hustle; the rest were just garbage. Yes, they were helping the Suns win, but … eh.

    I was disappointed to see Amundson not get re-signed. But I was about the only one that I saw on comments areas expressing concern. I was also concerned about how Dragic was being misused in the following year – being set up for failure right from the start of the season – but again, most of the comments I saw were against Dragic, saying he couldn’t play, he was trash, and he should go. The sentiment actually seemed to favor Dowdell, who was likeable but nowhere near as skilled or as tested. Go figure.

    While I was hoping the Suns would get Frye as early as his last year with Portland, and saying so, in comments on sites nobody seemed to know who he was, and in the years after his signing there’s been a constant beat down of Frye, saying he’s terrible, and can’t the Suns please get rid of him.

    So yeah, maybe NOW some fans are looking back at that bench and wishing. But at the time, the sentiment for those guys and the whole idea of a competent bench was very thin. They were acknowledged, but not sufficiently appreciated. Everyone seemed almost exclusively focused on the starters.

    Yes, individual bench players had their fans. Some expressed their like for Amundson, Dragic, Barbosa. But from what I could see, this was more in the vein of liking Pat Burke. It was like, “Yeah, I think this person is a good guy, but we want to win, so can’t we trade him for someone better? And right away?” Even on the Dragic trade, any complaints were usually based more on sentiment than concern about losing a player with legitimate talent and skills that fit the system.

    Oh well. I hope the Suns have the wisdom to build a strong bench and not just focus on the starting five. Furthermore, the coach has to take the bench seriously – please! – because games and seasons are won or lost based on the play of the bench unit.

    As for Cartwright’s departure … I’m curious and hopeful about who the new big man coach might be. I don’t expect much, but it would be nice if the Suns had someone who could teach coordinated big man offense as well as defense. I don’t know if he’s available or if he would be good as a coach, but a retired player who had the characteristics I’d be looking for is David Robinson. Even if he was only in periodically for special sessions, I think a guy like him would be good for uncorking potential in the Suns’ centers.

  • bird33

    shonnon brown is solid at the 2 spot they need to resign him.

  • Tony


    I guess we were looking at two different chat boards because I remember most fans wanting the bench to stay together although there was more focus on the Amare situation, which of course wasn’t surprising.

    The most frustrating part of Sarver’s decision to dismantle that 2010 team is that had he been a responsible owner and kept the team together for one more run, the Suns could have made it to the Finals the next season. Not to upset Steve, who I know hates hypotheticals, but the Lakers were still the team to beat the following the 2010 season and with them beginning their decline in the 2011 season, I believe the Suns could have made it at least back to the WCFs. This is not to say they would have beaten the Mavs or eventually the Heat, but at least they would have given it one more try with that amazing group of both talent and cohesion.

    In the end, we’ll never know if that group could have made another great run had Sarver decided to keep the team intact, but the combination of strong talent, great team chemistry, and leadership of Nash, Amare, and Hill, would have made it a strong possibility they would achieve more great feats together. Instead, over the past two seasons we’ve seen the Suns become a lottery team, and next season will probably be the same but with even less talent.

  • Tony

    One more thing. Watching the Spurs sweep the Clipps last night made me really appreciate the brilliant management of the Spurs organization. Even Marv and Kerr said they have the best organization in all of sports and that’s definitely true. After all these years, Holt and Pop manage to keep their big-3 signed with them with never a whisper of wanting to trade one of them. The past several seasons when Amare was a Sun, Sarver had him on the trade bloc each season and make no mistake about it, that effects a player’s attitude and committment to an organization.

    Instead of trying to dismantle their big 3, Holt and Pop have been focused on surrounding them with not just more talent but also with players suited to their system. This is why they traded for Jackson and signed Diaw or drafted Leonard. All these moves were targeted to improving the roster and not about saving cap space.

    So, although the Spurs beat us so many times in the playoffs, even though one of the times should forever be marked with an asterisk, I have to give credit to where it is due and it certainly is deserved for the Spurs organization.

  • Scott

    @Tony -


  • Scott
  • steve

    RC Buford is the guy who deserves the credit for the Spurs personnel (him and Tim Duncan, because Duncan doesn’t care whether or not he earns as much as he possibly can).

    As far as the Suns possibly making the WCF in 2011 if they had kept that unit together… they could have also possibly owed a useless Amare another $60M for one more potentially deep playoff run.

    The 2010 team was good, but also extremely flawed. If they had been thrown out there in 2011, you could have expected similar results.

  • Grover

    Wait a minute… Did I miss something? When did Lopez get better? I had to re-read that And 1 several times to make sure I got it right. Seems like he has regressed as often as he’s improved. I’m not sure he is any better than his rookie year.

  • Tony


    Good one, that was funny. LOL!


    So you’re saying you would rather two straight lottery seasons probably followed by a third than to see the Suns possibly go to the Finals or go back to the WCFs???? Also, how was the 2010 team extremely flawed? The Suns had the best bench in the league and a strong starting unit. They were also well-balanced in terms of what each player brought to the team. I think they were probably one decent big away from winning it all but they were certainly a lot closer than they are now.
    So, let’s hear the Sarver-propaganda, oops…,I mean your explanation, for why the 2010 team was so flawed and why the Suns as currently situated, are in a better position than they would have been in had Sarver decided to keep that Suns team in tact.

    Furthermore, Amare played great in the first half of his first season with the Knicks and everything changed for him with the Melo trade. Also, Gentry wouldn’t have played him 38+ minutes regularly like D’Antoni did. In combination with less minutes, better training staff, and a warmer climate, Amare’s health might not have been such an issue as it was with the Knicks.

  • G-Man

    They need to get rid of Lopez and his fumbling ass hands. We need some tougher post-position players who are there to bump and play with the other bigs in the league. Also some pretty good defenders who can handle the ball great, not just shoot it great. Too many turnovers have been the Suns weakness.

  •!/True_Rys Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    In think, in praising the Spurs organization for their ability to keep their “big 3″ intact, you must also recognize that the scenario in San Antonio could not have been duplicated in Phoenix.

    First, and most importantly, the Spurs stars signed “good” contracts, but none of them asked for the absolute maximum from the team. This allowed the franchise to easily bring in and move out players around them from year to year as they needed them.

    Flip the script to the Suns. Joe Johnson, Matrix, And Amare all demanded max player money to stay in the valley so even if one of them did get it, no way you could have signed the others anyway. Also, Steve signed a mega deal as well. She basic foundations for the Spurs long run has to do with the people involved. The studs for Phoenix were not of the same mentality so from that standpoint you simply can’t compare the two franchises.

    The other important thing to realize is coaching styles.

    Pop can, and will work with his youth. He rides them to death but he does work them in and get them to contribute. First in small amounts and as the seasons go on, they contribute a bit more until they move on for bigger contracts or get replaced.

    D’Antoni would have never done this while coaching in the valley. Apart from Barbosa who was already an offensive killer in Brasil when he arrived, MD didn’t really turn to his rookies in any way shape or form. Honestly he ran his 5 starters, Barbosa, and Diaw.

    Gentry isn’t much better unless he’s forced to do it like this year with Morris. Otherwise youth has been on the roster without any real opportunity to contribute, so how can you do what the Spurs do? Completely different indentities.

    Most of the Phoenix bench from that year got far better money from other places, and in another one of those situations where personnel was mis-handled, they let Barbosa float away to Toronto basically because they felt better about Dragon in that spot when really, Dragon should have been the 1 and Barbosa the 2.

    Sadly both D’Antoni and Gentry both viewed RoadRunner as a 1 and thus, a failure in their eyes.

    Truthfully, moving forward, I’m not worried about the bench. The mixture for bench success in Phoenix was discovered late in the season so, if they want to keep that going, they can do it affordably with no problems.

    Bassy / Redd / Chily* / Morris / RoLo

    *For the contract, if that’s all Childress will be next season as a Phoenix Sun, you’ve got to try and shop him or crush him with the Amnesty stick.

    The starting lineup is the real issue for this team moving forward.

  • Scott

    @Rich -

    Before that, Marbury was given the max.

    Maybe the Suns under Colangelo undermined themselves by paying their players too much, and that pay rate set expectations askew for how things should be handled.

  • Tony


    I had to check what you said and the salaries between Nash, Amare, and Marion, compared to Duncan, Manu, and Parker were not far off in during the Suns-championship era of 2005-2009. In fact, Duncan was making more than any of the Suns players through those years. I don’t count JJ since he was only there for 1 of those years. Furthermore, Parker and Nash’s salary was pretty close during those years and even now Parker is making more than Nash.

    With all that being said, Sarver could have simply let one Marion go and maintained the cap room for Nash, Amare, and J-Rich. I don’t necessarily blame him for not offering the max to Amare as his health was a legitimate concern, but not finding a suitable replacement is where most of my blame for is placed.

    Anyway, I do agree that the bench is the least of the Suns’ worries now. Their starting lineup is really pathetic. The only legitimate starter at this point on the team is Gortat. Assuming they sign an extension with Brooks, which I expect, he is only marginally better than Telfair and will probably be the starting pg. It’s very foreseeable that next year’s Suns team could rival the Bobcats of this past season in terms of lowest win percentage in league history.

  •!/True_Rys Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    I know you won’t agree, Tony, because I’m fully aware of your opinions on the matter. HOWEVAH!!! …

    I don’t mind if the Suns turn into the Bobcats for a season especially if the front office puts a team on the floor that is athletic and entertaining.

    Kind of like the pre-SSOL team before Nash got there. The team wasn’t winning anything, but at least they were fun to watch and highlights waiting to happen while looking for that general to rally them together.

    My worst fear is that the Suns once again hand out curious contracts in a bid to not “bottom out” and get stuck for another 2 or 3 years like the last two.

    From the rhetoric around the league from teams who didn’t make the playoffs and those who did but have been eliminated, you can tell that major releases and trades are coming. The free agent market is going to be full of players looking to be overpaid to compensate for being expelled from their respective teams.

    I’m 100% afraid the Suns will look at a lot of these players and consider them.

    I’d rather them try to get picks, youth, and let the post-lockout free agency off-season pass without getting hooked onto anybody long term.

  • Yohance

    I have to admit I kind of miss the seven seconds or less Suns
    team. However, no use crying over spilled milk. I have been
    a Suns fan for quite sometime. I am a little taken back that the team has not tried to offer coach Gentry a contract extension yet. I thought he did pretty well under the circumstances (I.e.

  • Yohance

    shorten season and lack of time to utilize the limited talent that was on the team. I would not mine if we went after Gasol from the Lakers, Greg. Oden, and Ray Allen people who can score to take pressure off Steve Nash and a Defender to guard the rim.

  • steve

    Is there a good site that keeps track of coaching stats? Like comparisons of lineup utilization or someone who tracks coaching efficiency?

    I know that there is a metric that basically tracks how often a coach uses his best lineups on a situational and season-long basis, but I’m not sure if that’s public information, exactly.

    I would venture to guess that Gentry is near average or maybe even below average when it comes to his lineup management. You can blame it on “lack of talent” if you want, but that same “untalented” bench unit is the biggest reason the Suns ended up making a playoff run. I don’t think the “lack of talent” argument can be made, and even if it could, those coaching metrics aren’t just a simple measure of wins and losses, they’re metrics for efficiency. If anybody has anything like that, I’d be very happy to see those stats.

    “So you’re saying you would rather two straight lottery seasons probably followed by a third than to see the Suns possibly go to the Finals or go back to the WCFs????”

    I didn’t say that at all, actually. Those were nothing like the words I typed.

    What I said was, “As far as the Suns possibly making the WCF in 2011 if they had kept that unit together… they could have also possibly owed a useless Amare another $60M for one more potentially deep playoff run.” Again, that’s nothing like what you said.

    My point in replying to your hypothetical situations is usually just to play the devil’s advocate. It’s not that I necessarily believe everything I say (in this case I do, though), it’s more to present one of the other INFINITE amount of scenarios/circumstances/situations you’re not accounting for with your extremely biased, single-minded approach.

    When you stop and realize that, at every single instant in our lives, we are faced with an infinite amount of possible decisions, it’s clearly obvious to everyone that things could always be different than what they are. Also, when you stop to think that there are about 7 billion other people in the same boat, you will begin to realize how much of what goes on is completely out of your control. Without going full butterfly effect on you, I’m just trying to say that it’s pretty much completely pointless to dwell on what “could” have been different. It’s not going to be different, and what you think “could” have happened “could” only have happened in a ridiculously controlled environment where every single one of the tens, hundreds, or thousands or people involved would have to collaberate to the same end…

    I’ll always agree that things could have been different. Things could have been better. Things could have been worse. If the Suns had kept Joe Johnson, maybe he wouldn’t have developed past his 16ppg self. Maybe he would have blown out his knees. If the Suns hadn’t signed Shaq, maybe the Wolves would have offered Garnett for Marion and the Suns would have won two rings by now. If J-Rich had boxed out Artest, maybe the Suns would have held on for an overtime victory (remember, they weren’t guaranteed the win if Artest didn’t get that put-back), and maybe they would have closed out the series, and maybe they would have won the finals…. or maybe Nash would have gotten a concussion in the Finals and never been able to play again. If the Suns hadn’t sold their picks, maybe they would have lucked into the next Manu and been on a tear… or maybe they would have picked terribly and been stuck with a bunch of lottery salaries for d-league talent with no way out, Steve Nash already gone for years, and Amare and Marion washed up way earlier for having had to carry the team by themselves for years….

    Maybe maybe maybe. You can never say with ANY degree of certainty what any outcome might have been given any set of variables, so why bother talking about it? The past is the past.

    I never like to think about what “could” have been if it’s not. And without knowing the details of every situation in the organization and knowing how much is up to luck and chance, I tend to favor graciousness over bitterness when judging the outcome of any moves the franchise makes.

  • JZ

    You guys think Phoenix front office could pull off a MAGICal Trade for Dwight Howard? Phoenix has the cap room and could absorb Hedo’s contract. Orlando could even throw in Baby Davis for more cap relief. Phoenix front office would have to give Gortat back as well as Frye or Markieff (or both) plus a draft pick and Warrick. Steve would most definitely stay in Phoenix to play with Dwight. Brooks and Lopez would definite be the anchors of the second unit with Hedo playing point forward. They may even draft a shooting guard (if they don’t do the trade on draft day). Jamal Crawford will most likely sign with Phoenix and they may even persuade Redd to sign on.

  • Michael Schwartz

    @Steve I wrote about that last year a little bit (coaching efficiency) and probably will again later in the summer. Here are those three articles:, and By Ian Levy’s method, Gentry ranks among the elite coaches at playing the right players. The Engelmann method sees Gentry as a bit below average in terms of how players perform in comparison to expectations. Here are Engelmann’s numbers, which appear to be the same as last year:

  • Yohance

    I doubt they would want to do a trade where
    they revisit the Hedo experiment. Quite frankly it was just a bad fit. Now, I would love to get Howard too, but I do not think it would happen because he would want to go to a team with a large market. This way he can make a lot more money off-the court as well as on the court (i.e. endorsements, movies, commercials, etc).
    Bottom line is that we need to get more athletic, young, and have someone that is not afraid to do the dirty work and bang inside/protect the rim. I would not mine doing a monumental trade to get Kevin Love or somebody that can defend, rebound, and score. That’s what we need. Or, I wish we could someone in the Karl Malone make-up. Pick and roll all day.

  • Ty-Sun

    In all honesty, I think the “Hedo experiment” failed even more because the Suns tried to turn him into a PF when his natural position is SF. He was never really a great SF so moving him to PF was doomed from the start. That was a bade trade made purely on hope IMO.

  • GoSuns

    @ Yohance, its starting to become less about what howard wants and the more about what direction the magic want to move in, theyve fired van gundy and otis possibly to make him more happy but if he doesn’t sign an extension theyre going to trade him to whomever can give them great value but also help them out (getting rid of hedo’s contract) because now he might have a preferred list but after this past season his reputation has taken a hit and it might be somewhat of a gamble to take a guy whom seems fake in his loyalty at times and who needs to craft his offensive yet demands that he should be the guy in the 4th when he can’t shoot much better than 50% from the free throw line

  • steve

    Thanks, Michael. I thought I remembered VotS writing about that last season. Thanks for the interesting content, even in a long summer for a bad team. It’s great that the site is still so active and full of great, unique content.

    • Michael Schwartz

      You’re welcome, Steve, and the kind words are much appreciated!

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