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Friday, March 13, 2009

The Most Dominant Championship Teams in NBA/ABA History

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of Basketball Digest.

After Michael Jordan announced "I'm Back" and led the Chicago Bulls to three straight championships, many observers proclaimed the Bulls the greatest team ever. Other experts preferred Russell's Celtics, the 1967 76ers, the 1972 Lakers, the Magic-Kareem Lakers, the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics or the Malone-Erving 76ers. While it is fun to imagine certain matchups, there is no objective way to determine how these teams would fare against each other. It is obvious that any comparison of teams that played in different decades is pure speculation but even sizing up teams from the same era is an inexact science. Magic's Lakers and Bird's Celtics tweaked their rosters as players emerged (James Worthy, Kevin McHale) and declined (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Cedric Maxwell), making it difficult to even select the best Lakers and Celtics teams of the '80s, let alone the greatest team of all time.

While greatness is an elusive and subjective evaluation, dominance can be found in the record books in several different categories; these numbers show which championship teams obliterated all contenders and which ones narrowly snatched the brass ring from their rivals. In short, the most dominant team is the team that stood out the most from the pack in a given season. The most direct measure of dominance is points per game (ppg) differential. Since the 1954-55 season (first year of the shot clock era), 35 of 46 NBA champions and seven of nine ABA champions finished third in the league or better in this category. Two other measures of dominance are rebounds per game (rpg) differential and field goal percentage (fg%) differential; the NBA has only kept these records since the 1970-71 season, while the ABA did so for all nine of its seasons. Almost every champion of the past 30 years ranked at or near the top of the league in both areas.

Only 11 NBA or ABA champions achieved a ppg differential of nine or better (see accompanying chart; 3/13/09 Note: Since this article was written, one more NBA champion had a ppg differential better than nine: the 2008 Boston Celtics led the NBA with a 10.2 ppg differential while also ranking fourth in rebounding differential [3.1 rpg] and first in field goal percentage differential [.056], numbers that make them worthy of being included on any list of the most dominant championship teams in NBA/ABA history):

Since 1955 only four teams have failed to win a title after posting a 9-plus ppg differential. The 1972 Kentucky Colonels went 68-16 with an ABA record 9.0 ppg differential but were upset in the playoffs by Rick Barry’s New York Nets. That same year the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks (63-19 with a fabulous 11.1 ppg differential) fell in the playoffs to the even more dominant Lakers. The 1986 Bucks had a 9.0 ppg differential but were swept in the playoffs by the Celtics. In 1994 the Seattle Supersonics seemed to be the class of the league with a 63-19 record and 9.0 ppg differential but Dikembe Mutombo and the Denver Nuggets toppled them in one of the biggest playoff upsets in basketball history.

The pre-shot clock era 1947 Washington Capitols of the Basketball Association of America (one of the forerunners of the NBA) went 49-11 with a sterling 9.9 ppg differential. A bizarre playoff format pitted them against the league’s other division champion, the Chicago Stags, in the first round. The Capitols lost that series 4-2 despite the efforts of their 29 year old, first year coach--none other than Arnold "Red" Auerbach!

Where are the ABA championship teams? No ABA champion posted a 9 ppg or greater differential. The most dominant ABA champion was the 1969 Oakland Oaks (8.4 ppg differential). Rick Barry averaged 34 ppg and 9.4 rpg but only played in 35 games before suffering a season ending knee injury. Doug Moe, Warren Armstrong (later Jabali) and Gary Bradds picked up the scoring slack, while current 76ers coach Larry Brown provided leadership as an All-Star point guard. The Oaks finished 60-18 and beat a strong Pacers team 4-1 in the Finals. The Pacers later became known as the Boston Celtics of the ABA, winning three titles in a four year span, but each year Indiana posted relatively modest regular season ppg differentials. Julius Erving's Nets won titles in '74 and '76 with 5.4 and 3.0 ppg differentials, while his '75 squad had a league-best 7.6 ppg differential but fell in the first round of the playoffs to Marvin "Bad News" Barnes, Maurice Lucas and the Spirits of St. Louis.



Most Dominant Pro Basketball Championship Teams
Reg. Season Record Playoff Record Team PPG Reb. Diff. FG % Diff.
Diff.
60-20 8-6 1962 Boston Celtics 9.2 (1) ----- -----
68-13 11-4 1967 Philadelphia 76ers 9.4 (1) ----- -----
60-22 12-7 1970 New York Knicks 9.1 (1) ----- -----
66-16 12-2 1971 Milwaukee Bucks 12.2 (1) 4.1 (3) .085 (1)
69-13 12-3 1972 L.A. Lakers 12.3 (1) 4.1 (3) .058 (2)
67-15 15-3 1986 Boston Celtics 9.4 (1) 4.9 (1) .047 (1)
65-17 15-3 1987 L.A. Lakers 9.3 (1) 2.3 (6) .049 (2)
61-21 15-2 1991 Chicago Bulls 9.0 (1) 3.2 (5) .035 (3)
67-15 15-7 1992 Chicago Bulls 10.4 (1) 4.4 (3) .048 (1)
72-10 15-3 1996 Chicago Bulls 12.2 (1) 6.6 (1) .030 (4)
69-13 15-4 1997 Chicago Bulls 10.8 (1) 4.9 (1T) .037 (3)








Note: Numbers in parentheses indicate league rank; in 1997, the Bulls and Trail Blazers tied for 1st in rebounding differential.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:31 AM

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kobe "Leopard" Bryant Drops 37 Points on Houston in 102-96 Lakers Win

Some people seem to believe/hope that 2008 NBA MVP Kobe Bryant is a lion in winter but during the Lakers' 102-96 win in Houston on Wednesday night Bryant reaffirmed what he declared during last year's playoffs: "Better learn not to talk to me. You shake the tree, a leopard's gonna fall out." Bryant had six first half points on 3-6 field goal shooting but Ron Artest figuratively shook the tree in the second half by verbally and physically jousting with Bryant and Bryant responded with 31 second half points on 11-17 field goal shooting. Bryant's efficient scoring explosion carried the Lakers to an important road victory despite the absences of suspended forward Lamar Odom and injured center Andrew Bynum; Bryant also had a game-high six assists, five rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots. Isn't it interesting that when commentators compare the "supporting casts" on various teams everyone seems to forget that Bryant has led the Lakers to the best record in the NBA despite Bynum missing the second half of the season? Whenever I need a good laugh, I just think about that Wages of Wins article from last year about how Andrew Bynum is a more valuable player for the Lakers than Kobe Bryant.

Only two other Lakers scored in double figures (Pau Gasol had 20 points and Josh Powell added 17 points) and their bench players shot 5-15 from the field but Bryant's second half fireworks were enough to hold at bay a balanced Houston team that shot .513 from the field and placed six players in double figures, including two reserves. Von Wafer led the Rockets with 20 points, while Yao Ming had 16 points on 7-9 field goal shooting.

It is particularly interesting that Bryant went off against Houston, because recently the Rockets received a lot of publicity about how they are using basketball statistical analysis to try to devise the best ways to contain Bryant. My recent interview with Cleveland Coach Mike Brown elicited what may be the quote of the year about basketball statistical analysis, particularly since it came from the mouth of someone who many members of the media often mock for being bland. When I asked Coach Brown about the New York Times article that described how much Houston General Manager Daryl Morey relies on basketball statistical analysis, Brown replied, "Not to knock that, because I think it is great to use if you have some solid information, but how many championships has that gotten them?"

Brown's words carry weight because he not only led the Cavs to the 2007 NBA Finals but he was an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs when they won the 2003 NBA Championship. Brown, who bases his coaching philosophy on what he learned from Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich, told me, "I was with Pop for three years and he’s not a stat guy. In a 10 year span, he’s won four NBA championships. I know that every game, he doesn’t go up to Bruce (Bowen) and say, ‘Kobe shoots 22% from the right corner and 35% from the left corner’ or whatever. It’s a thing that, yes, if you use it the right way it can be helpful, but if you try to use stats too much I don’t know if it’s going to bring you a championship, at least from what I’ve experienced. We didn’t need those types of detailed stats to win a championship in San Antonio."

Mike Brown never gets enough credit from the media about how good of a coach he is. The media constantly dog him about Cleveland's supposedly poor offense but he has turned the Cavs into a defensive juggernaut who are posting a league-best 9.3 scoring differential this season--the same as Magic Johnson's 1987 Lakers and better than Magic's other four championship teams. Brown employs an excellent defensive game plan and all of his players buy into it.

Even though Popovich and Brown do not believe in relying on basketball statistical analysis, I do think that there is some value to what Morey is trying to do. As I noted in my response to the NYT article, "Morey appears to understand the limits of a purely mathematical approach to the game and thus uses numbers to confirm what his eyes tell him--and vice versa. This is a completely different approach from the one taken by far too many stat gurus who are so enamored with their formulas that they dismiss the importance of actually watching games--perhaps because they are in fact not truly capable of watching basketball games with any real understanding of what is happening on the court."

However, it is important to understand that basketball statistical analysis does not provide some magical Holy Grail that instantly confers success on any team that uses it.

Although a plurality of NBA GMs still consider Kobe Bryant to be a better player than LeBron James, Morey recently said that James is the best player in the NBA, adding, "There's a reason the (NYT) article is about Kobe, not LeBron." Morey laughed as he said that but here are some serious numbers for Morey and his statistics crew to ponder: Bryant averaged 31.0 ppg on .514 field goal shooting (including .444 from three point range) as his Lakers swept the Rockets 3-0 this season; James averaged 24.0 ppg on .409 field goal shooting (including .250 from three point range) as his Cavs split their two games versus the Rockets.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 AM

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sam Jones: The Smoothest Celtic

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the December 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.

Bobby "Slick" Leonard has seen five decades of pro basketball as a player, coach and broadcaster, so it carries some weight when he declares that Sam Jones is the most underrated guard in NBA history. It is easy to overlook Jones: Oscar Robertson and Jerry West exclusively owned the All-NBA First Team for six straight seasons during his prime and he played alongside several Hall of Famers on the Boston Celtics.

Jones' Celtics went 9-0 in game sevens, four of them in the NBA Finals. Jones averaged 27.1 ppg in those games, with a high game of 47 (against Robertson's Cincinnati Royals) and a low of 18. He scored many of those points with his trademark bank shot, which has almost become a lost art in today’s game (Tim Duncan uses it very effectively and Scottie Pippen employed it frequently during his prime scoring years). He had 37 points against Philadelphia in game seven of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals—but this was overshadowed by the game’s famous ending: "Havlicek stole the ball!"

Sam Jones won 10 championships in his 12 season Hall of Fame career (1958-69); only Russell, with 11 titles in 13 years, won more NBA championships as a player. The 6-4, 205-pound Jones averaged 17.7 ppg in the regular season and 18.9 ppg in 154 postseason games; take out his first three seasons as Bill Sharman’s backup and those numbers increase to 20.2 ppg and 21.8 ppg respectively. When he retired only West and Elgin Baylor had more career playoff points; thirty five years later, Jones' total still ranks in the top 20, despite the fact that recent players can pad their numbers due to the addition of many games to the playoff format.

Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy notes that Jones fit the Celtics' fast break attack perfectly: "In Sam’s case, he was even easier to feed in an open court situation than Sharman because of his speed and quickness. Normally people associate basketball players with height, but in my judgment speed and quickness are what separate the men from the boys."

Sam and K.C. Jones (no relation) usually practiced on the same team, but more than 40 years later K.C. vividly remembers one occasion that he guarded Sam: "He had a stutter step that would kind of halt your defense and then all of a sudden he just glides by you. He did that to me in a scrimmage and it just totally blew my mind that he was so smooth with that."

Tommy Heinsohn, a Hall of Fame forward on those Celtic teams, singles out Sam Jones' versatility as a reason for his success in big games: "There are precious few players right now who have all the shots. They are either really good outside shooters or they try to take it all the way. That’s why this kid Richard Hamilton kind of sticks out in the current NBA, because he has those tweener shots…Sam was the type of player—like Richard Hamilton—who could get where he wanted to get and pull up and shoot the jumpers."

When this comparison is mentioned to Cousy, he immediately rejects it: "As usual, I disagree with everything Tommy says, including that," Cousy laughed. "I don’t think Hamilton is going to be a Hall of Famer…Especially at this stage of the game, I think that (comparison) is vastly underrating Sam." When it is suggested that Heinsohn did not mean that the players are equally accomplished but that they share a stylistic similarity, Cousy good naturedly disagreed: "I guess Tommy is more of a visionary than I am."

Asked who in the modern game is most similar to Sam Jones, K.C. Jones—without knowing Cousy or Heinsohn’s answers--also mentions Hamilton, saying of the Detroit Pistons' shooting guard, "That man is in awesome shape. What’s like Sam is that he moves without the ball and when he gets the ball he's going right up for the shot."

How would Sam Jones match up with today’s premier shooting guards? Cousy says, "When you are talking about Hall of Famers, Sam could easily play in today’s game and give Kobe, McGrady and whoever all they could handle. When you are talking about McGrady, Kobe, Sam Jones—I mean, nobody could stop those guys. They have so many offensive weapons, unless you commit two or even three people to them you are not going to slow them down a lot."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:18 AM

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NBA Makes Correct Rulings About Ariza and Odom

The NBA has suspended L.A. Lakers forward Lamar Odom one game for leaving the area of the bench during an on court altercation that broke out in the wake of the Type 2 Flagrant Foul committed by his teammate Trevor Ariza against Portland's Rudy Fernandez. Here is the play:



The Odom suspension was automatic and easier to predict than the sun rising in the East. The NBA rules unequivocally state that if any player who is not in the game leaves the area of the bench during an altercation then he will be suspended. The league has been enforcing the letter of this law for more than a decade and has brought the hammer down on everyone from Patrick Ewing to Amare Stoudemire. Around the :25 mark in the above video you can see Odom straying several feet beyond the bench area (he is past where the three point line extends), so he was a dead man walking by that point in terms of being suspended. Phoenix Suns' fans have hated this rule ever since Stoudemire and Boris Diaw violated it during a playoff series in 2007 but this is a good rule that works and should absolutely not be changed. The only two actions during a game that lead to an automatic suspension are throwing a punch (whether or not it connects) and leaving the bench area during an altercation. Those two rules have been strictly enforced by the NBA and that is why fighting has become virtually non-existent in the league. Since everyone knows that those rules will be enforced, players can keep their "tough guy cred" by walking up to each other, talking like big shots and then heading back to their own huddles; no one will question why they did not throw a punch because everyone knows that this will lead to an automatic suspension that costs them money and hurts their team. Look at that video again: NBA players average about 6-7, 230 and if they had started throwing real, closed fist punches they could have seriously injured someone, including very possibly fans and/or camera operators who were right in the vicinity of the players who were squaring off. It is up to the referees, coaches and the 10 players who are in the game to act as peacemakers, while the players who are on the bench need to stay on the bench, because just walking over is an escalation. Think about it: if you are arguing with someone and his 6-7, 230 buddy starts walking over, in the heat of the moment are you going to assume that this guy is a peacemaker or an antagonist?

A Type 2 Flagrant Foul carries with it an automatic ejection. The NBA announced that Ariza will not face any further disciplinary action. I first saw this play while watching NBA TV, so I heard the local Portland feed. The announcers should be named Homer and Homer, because they were screaming bloody murder almost before Fernandez even hit the ground. Before the referees even had a chance to make a ruling, they kept going on and on about Ariza; I thought that they were going to request that a War Crimes Tribunal be immediately formed. Fernandez took a horrible fall that was scary to watch and I hope that he makes a quick and full recovery. That said, the NBA handled this situation perfectly from beginning to end. The referees correctly assessed a Type 2 Flagrant Foul; as the NBA rulebook explains, a Type 1 Flagrant Foul involves "unnecessary contact," while a Type 2 Flagrant Foul involves "unnecessary and excessive contact...(that) usually has a swinging motion, hard contact and a follow through." Note that it is irrelevant whether or not the fouling player made a play on the ball or attempted to make a play on the ball; the only issues are whether the contact was "unnecessary" and/or "excessive." This play clearly fit the Type 2 Flagrant Foul definition.

A player only receives an additional suspension beyond the automatic ejection if the NBA really considers his conduct to be egregious in some fashion or if the player is a repeat offender. Play the above video and freeze it at the :18 mark. Fernandez is jumping to lay the ball up (or dunk it) and Ariza is jumping to attempt to block the shot; if you draw an arc of the natural swinging motion of Ariza's arm the way it is positioned, it looks like he has a good chance of blocking the shot. Unfortunately, because of the differing speeds that the players were moving at and Ariza's angle of pursuit, Ariza caught Fernandez right on the head. The Portland announcers kept making a big deal that Ariza grabbed Fernandez' arm and flung him down but that is ridiculous; if you look at the video from the :18 to :22 mark, Ariza's arm simply continues in the path that it had been going. He does not grab Fernandez. That may not have been obvious live and at full speed, but the Portland announcers kept insisting that Ariza had maliciously grabbed Fernandez even after they watched the replay repeatedly.

I think that Ariza was sincerely trying to go for the block but the angle of the play did not work out well. In retrospect, it looks like a dangerous play and perhaps an unnecessary one considering the lopsided score at the time but he only had a split second to make a decision; if he quits on the play, then he might be criticized for not hustling. Sometimes bad things happen even when there are not bad intentions. A Type 2 Flagrant Foul is the correct ruling, as is not disciplining Ariza any further.

You may recall that earlier this season, Andrew Bynum committed a Flagrant Foul that collapsed Gerald Wallace's left lung and fractured one of his ribs. The referees in that game only cited Bynum for a Type 1 Flagrant Foul but the league office subsequently upgraded that to a Type 2 Flagrant Foul, though they did not suspend him. I called Bynum's action "dirty" even though I made it clear that I don't believe that he is a dirty player. The difference between the Bynum play and the Ariza play is that what Bynum did is not a natural basketball move; he delivered a high elbow/forearm shiver into Wallace's chest, as opposed to swinging down to try to block the shot (or commit a regular foul) with his hand. I said at that time that the NBA was right to upgrade Bynum's foul and I thought that the only reason that they did not suspend him is that they were giving him the benefit of the doubt because he does not have a track record for being dirty. Regardless of whether Fernandez or Wallace turns out to be more seriously injured, the Bynum foul was a much worse action than the Ariza foul.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:32 AM

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Kobe Bryant: Perception Versus Reality

There have been ebbs and flows in terms of how Kobe Bryant is perceived and how he has been portrayed in the media but Bryant has never wavered regarding two things: (1) he has been misunderstood as a person; (2) he has not changed fundamentally as a player (even though "experts" insist that he has become a better teammate).

In some of his recent advertisements, Bryant has tried to show the public his real personality: "What we've done from a marketing standpoint is let people see who I am as a person for real and then make their judgments from that point going forward. From that standpoint, I think we've done a good job of making sure people see that and if they choose to come around or not, that's kind of up to them." As for his on court performance, Bryant says simply, "I've been playing the same way since I came into this league. I haven't changed at all. I think the thing that's changed is my role on this team. The things that I would have done when Shaquille was here in terms of getting in people's faces and demanding stuff from them, calling guys out, whatever, now that's viewed as leadership. Back then, it was viewed as a young kid stepping out of line."

When Bryant's public reputation reached its nadir four years ago, I asserted that the perception of Bryant did not match up with the reality. Not long after that article was published, I asked Bryant about how the media distorts the truth regarding him and he replied, "The truth always comes out, so I don't worry about it. I don't think about it. It's going to shake out. People who talk about me in a negative manner don't know me. They don't know me. If they had a chance to be around me and kick it with me and get to know me, then they can judge. I think that will come out as years go by. People will see how I truly am and what I'm truly about and everything will be all right."

Many commentators think that being a member of the media means never having to admit that you were wrong: to them, Bill Belichick's Super Bowl wins don't prove that they misjudged him in Cleveland; Belichick "changed." Similarly, it is popular to say that Bryant now "gets it" but it is more accurate to say that observers are finally "getting it": Bryant has been the best all-around player in the league for several years now and he has always been an excellent passer; after all, he was the leading playmaker on three Lakers' championship teams, filling the Scottie Pippen role in the Triangle Offense for the first three quarters before switching to the Michael Jordan scoring role in the fourth quarter because Shaquille O'Neal's poor free throw shooting meant that O'Neal could not be trusted with the ball in his hands down the stretch.

The idea that Bryant suddenly learned last season how to trust his teammates is ridiculous; contrasting his famous scoring outbursts--such as his 81 point game--with his current scoring average is asinine: who, exactly, should Bryant have "trusted" three years ago versus Toronto when the Lakers were trailing by nearly 20 points and needed a superhuman performance in order to get back in the game? If Bryant had eschewed shooting the ball 25-30 times a game in order to pass more often to Kwame Brown and Smush Parker that would have been stupid, selfish basketball because it would not have increased his team's likelihood of winning--but when Bryant is paired with someone who can catch the ball and make plays, the result is beautiful. The Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol screen/roll play turned into a deadly weapon almost immediately after Gasol joined the Lakers last season; Bryant is a great screen/roll player who fully understands how to make correct reads under pressure and make the open jumper, attack quickly when there is a driving lane or make the right pass, whether it involves feeding a cutting Gasol, hitting Lamar Odom flashing to the high post or skipping the ball to an open three point shooter on the backside of the play.

Furthermore, any suggestion that Bryant's spectacular scoring exploits were not primarily focused on helping the Lakers win is belied by the fact that the Lakers are 65-31 during Bryant's career when he scores 40 or more points, including a 17-7 mark when he scores at least 50 points.

Bryant's 81 point game was amazing and outscoring a strong Dallas team 62-61 in the first three quarters may have been even more remarkable but do you remember when Bryant scored 30 points in one quarter versus the Utah Jazz, shooting 9-9 from the field and 10-10 from the free throw line? I called that performance "the closest thing that you will ever see to a basketball player being perfect, at least for 12 glorious minutes." In the wake of that masterpiece, Ric Bucher wrote, "How many times must Kobe demonstrate that no one in the league--and I mean no one--has his combination of skill, tenacity, understanding of time and score, killer instinct and ability to control the game at both ends? And how many times must I be the one taking the flag and waving it? Trust me, if you're sick of me sticking up for Kobe, I'm equally sick of having to do it. It shouldn't be this difficult to have the man recognized as the league's all-around best player. OK, so you don't like him. I'm good with that. But not respect him? Not give him his due? Anoint anyone who hasn't accomplished half of what he has as The King or The One or The Whatever?"

Bryant's critics have always been quick to compare his temperament and playing style unfavorably with his former teammate O'Neal. Writers and broadcasters love O'Neal because he makes their job easy, providing a steady stream of quotes to fill their notebooks and recorders. Bryant is more thoughtful and reserved, which means that he responds better to thoughtful questions than superficial questions and does not often produce sound bite-quality answers. When Jerry Buss decided in 2004 that he did not want to extend O'Neal's contract for maximum dollars and maximum years, most members of the media blamed O'Neal's departure from the Lakers on Bryant and continued to tell the story that way even though Buss, O'Neal, Phil Jackson, Bryant and anyone else involved with that situation has made it very clear that Buss made his decision based on financial considerations. Buss' thinking was also influenced by the fact that O'Neal's subpar work ethic made it likely that O'Neal would miss a lot of games, which is exactly what has happened.

Following the mantra of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, the mainstream media portrayed O'Neal as a great teammate while disparaging Bryant as a selfish teammate who wanted to get rid of O'Neal in order to prove that he could win a championship on his own. Now that a few years have passed, it is interesting to reexamine the question of who is a better teammate. The only teammate who Bryant has "feuded" with is O'Neal; Bryant has been with the same franchise for his entire career and he has played an integral role in helping his younger teammates improve their games--you can read about one of many examples of this in my November 27, 2007 Lakers-Pacers recap, which describes how Bryant has been a mentor for Andrew Bynum (this is a marked contrast with how O'Neal treated Bryant when O'Neal was a veteran and Bryant was a young player fresh out of high school). Bryant set the tone for Team USA with his work ethic and defensive intensity; the coaching staff and other players acknowledged that he was one of the main team leaders right from the start and that was never more obvious than when Bryant took over down the stretch in the gold medal game victory over Spain.

In contrast, O'Neal has played for four NBA teams and every time he has left a team he has departed on bad terms, directing venomous comments toward his former coaches and several of his former teammates. It is funny that in O'Neal's recent verbal barrage against his former coach Stan Van Gundy one of O'Neal's complaints is that he hates a "frontrunner," because that is the perfect way to describe how one minute O'Neal will praise Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant or someone else and then the next minute he will stab that very same person in the back with a vicious remark. As Van Gundy said in response to O'Neal's verbal blasts, being mocked by O'Neal places him in good company.

Every single team that O'Neal has played on has had serious problems with locker room chemistry. The Kobe Bryant-led Lakers have been largely free of chemistry problems since trading O'Neal. Even when Bryant was going into gun fights with "butter knives" his Lakers were a playoff team in the competitive West and as soon as the Lakers got some "guns" Bryant led them to the 2008 Finals and he currently has them lapping the field in the West in the 2009 regular season. Look at how quickly O'Neal's championship team fell apart in Miami--as I wrote last year, O'Neal presided over "perhaps the quickest and most complete collapse by a champion in NBA history: within two years O'Neal's Heat were the worst team in the NBA and he had found an escape hatch to Phoenix"; look at how poor the chemistry is in Phoenix now and how that talented team with two former MVPs and multiple current or former All-Stars is sinking out of the playoff race. O'Neal's dysfunctional track record with multiple teams sure shines a different light on the O'Neal-Bryant "feud"; the media portrayed O'Neal as selfless and Bryant as selfish but the reality behind the scenes was much different, as I noted in many posts here (including this one about Bryant playing through his pinkie injury last season): O'Neal can try to claim that the tensions between he and Bryant were nothing but "marketing" but the reality is that Bryant wanted O'Neal to have a more professional attitude and he called O'Neal out for getting his 2002 toe surgery on "company time" and thus coming into the 2002-03 season out of shape. Instead of taking Bryant's words to heart, O'Neal's response was that if the big dog was not fed (the ball) then he would not guard the house (play defense in the paint).

Bryant is a killer during games AND on the practice court. In a very telling remark during the 2009 All-Star Weekend, Bryant recalled, "When that light came on he (Shaq) was a guy who was going to try to break somebody's face off during the game." The flip side of that, of course, is that during practice, O'Neal did not have nearly the same intensity; the difference between Bryant and O'Neal in that regard--and not the nonsense that much of the media wasted so much time discussing--is the real basis of their "feud." Bryant is a hard worker year round and in that sense he and O'Neal are fundamentally incompatible; their on court chemistry was good because during games they shared that goal of "break(ing) somebody's face off."

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:43 PM

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Dwyane Wade Has Made Me a Believer

Never let it be said that I am too stubborn to change my mind when I am presented with compelling evidence. I have insisted throughout this season that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are in a class by themselves in the MVP discussion because their skill sets, their size advantage over other top perimeter players and the success of their teams place them above all other contenders--but in the wake of yet another splendid performance by Dwyane Wade, I think that his name has to be mentioned in the discussion as well. He just dropped 48 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, four steals and three blocked shots on the Chicago Bulls in a 130-127 double overtime Miami Heat home victory. Wade had a game-high +20 plus/minus number!

The Bulls had the ball with 11.2 seconds left in the second overtime and the score tied, so it seemed like the worst case scenario for them was to head to triple overtime. Instead, Wade exploded into a gap like a sprinter, stole the ball from John Salmons, raced downcourt, checked the clock and drilled a one legged three pointer just before the buzzer. From start to improbable finish that is one of the most amazing game-winning basketball plays that I have ever seen.

I'm not ready to put Wade ahead of Bryant and James just yet but he is in that elite group with them ahead of everyone else. Wade played very well in the first portion of the season but his performance level since the All-Star break--averaging 35.3 ppg, 10.7 apg and 5.9 rpg while shooting .559 from the field in 10 games prior to Monday night's heroics--is truly remarkable; the one downside for Wade is that the Heat went just 5-5 in those games with only two victories against plus-.500 teams but there is no denying that Wade is playing at an MVP level and that he should be placed alongside Bryant as the two guards on the All-NBA First Team, bumping Chris Paul to the All-NBA Second Team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:35 PM

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Mike Brown Coaches by Feel, Not Numbers

Near the end of Coach Mike Brown's pregame standup before Cleveland’s 99-89 win over Miami on Saturday, I asked him several questions relating to game plan preparation and his thoughts about various basketball statistics. That interview has been posted at CavsNews.com:

Mike Brown Coaches by Feel, Not Numbers

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:15 PM

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"Marbury Effect" May Tip the Balance in Tight Race for Top Seed

After Cleveland's disappointing loss in Boston on Friday, some commentators took the predictable and easy route of jumping off of the Cavs' bandwagon and proclaiming that the Celtics will finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference. This is yet another example of hype and superficiality triumphing over thoughtful analysis. As things stand right now, the Cavs are two games ahead of the Celtics in the loss column; Cleveland has 20 games remaining, while the Celtics have just 18 games left.

The Cavs are 28-1 at home and will play 12 of their last games at Quicken Loans Arena. Only two of their eight upcoming road games are against teams that currently have winning records. The Cavs are 8-2 since the All-Star break, which is right in line with their overall winning percentage this season. If they maintain that pace, they will finish with a 65-17 record.

The Celtics will play nine games at home and nine on the road. They are just 5-4 overall since the All-Star break. If Cleveland wins 65 games, then the Celtics would need to go 16-2 down the stretch to tie them.

Obviously, the April 12 meeting between these teams in Cleveland looms as a hugely important game. It is worth remembering that the home team has won the previous 15 games in this series, which means that Friday's result was not some landmark event but rather a continuation of a trend; that also means that it is reasonable to say that Cleveland will likely win the April 12 game, which would force the Celtics to make up three games in the loss column in their other 17 games down the stretch.

Just by looking at the schedule, it is obvious that--objectively speaking--the Cavs should still be considered the favorite to finish with the best record in the East. The Cavs are in pretty good shape on the injury front, with the notable exception of starting power forward Ben Wallace, who is expected to miss the rest of the regular season due to his broken leg. Wallace's absence has hurt the Cavs in the paint and significantly reduced their margin for error but the Cavs have a good sized margin for error considering that they lead the league in point differential. They have gone 5-1 without Wallace and, although some of their remaining games will probably be closer than they would have been with a healthy Wallace patrolling the paint, the Cavs will most likely be able to continue to hover around that .800 winning percentage.

The Celtics, on the other hand, have been depleted by injuries. Kevin Garnett has missed eight straight games due to injury and it is not certain when he will be able to return. Rajon Rondo is battling a sprained ankle that forced him to miss Sunday's loss to Orlando. Glen "Big Baby" Davis--who has played well in Garnett's absence--sprained his right ankle versus Orlando and did not return to the game. Reserve guard Tony Allen is expected to be out until the playoffs as he recovers from thumb surgery. The strange thing with the Celtics is that, even though Garnett played a pivotal role in transforming them into a championship team, they have been successful without him in the lineup; last year, the Celtics went 9-2 in games that Garnett missed and they are 8-3 sans the "Big Ticket" this season.

I would put an asterisk on that third loss, though, because that game--the aforementioned Orlando defeat--is the first game that Stephon Marbury started for the Celtics this year. The Celtics' 17-4 record in the first 21 games that Garnett missed over the past two seasons suggests that they can perform at a high level in his absence, at least for short stretches. However, even for the reigning champions it is asking a lot to try to keep winning after inserting Marbury into the starting lineup.

Marbury has only been with Boston for five games but don't expect him to be a Bob McAdoo or Mark Aguirre who puts the Celtics over the top; as I wrote right after Marbury joined the Celtics, Boston was an .800 team prior to his arrival but if that percentage dips to even .700 down the stretch it could cost the team a shot at the number one seed. Every team Marbury has joined has gotten worse and every team he has left has improved, so why would anyone expect that trend to reverse now? The Celtics are 3-2 since Marbury arrived (he came off of the bench in his first four games). He is averaging 2.8 ppg and 2.4 apg while shooting .333 from the field and committing 2.0 turnovers and 1.8 fouls per game. Marbury had a game-worst -14 plus/minus number in the Orlando game. During his sabbatical from the Knicks before the team bought out his contract, Marbury seems to have lost his shooting stroke and his ballhandling skills while at the same time becoming even worse defensively than he had been before (which is saying something). Plus/minus numbers can be "noisy" but the only thing that Marbury's numbers are shouting is, "Take this guy out of the game, Coach!" Doc Rivers admitted after the game that he went against his instincts by starting Marbury.

I've heard a lot of people say that the Celtics took no risk signing Marbury because if he is unproductive and/or starts trouble then they will simply cut him loose. I disagree that Boston took no risk--the risk is that the Celtics perform worse after signing him than they did before and that is exactly what has happened. The Celtics outrebounded the Magic and played them to a draw in terms of points in the paint--two areas where Garnett's absence would be most keenly felt--but with Marbury running the show they shot just .395 from the field and had only 10 assists. Marbury had zero assists in 21 minutes of action as the starting point guard!

Clearly, Marbury is not solely responsible for the Orlando loss or for Boston's record in his five games with the team but he has not been an effective player so far for the Celtics and there is no indication that he will be an effective player any time soon. The Celtics should be getting their rotation set in preparation for a deep playoff run, but instead they are in effect running a delayed training camp for a player who has never proven that he can contribute meaningfully to a team that makes a deep playoff run.

The talking heads can go nuts over Friday's game but I think that the Cavs unofficially clinched the best record in the East as soon as the ink dried on Marbury's Boston contract.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:48 AM

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Cleveland's One-Two Punch Knocks Out Heat

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were the headline acts but Mo Williams stole the show with a game-high 29 points as Cleveland beat Miami 99-89 to improve to 28-1 in the friendly confines of Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs are also an NBA-best 12-1 after a loss, as they managed to quickly put Friday night's debacle in Boston behind them. Williams shot 10-15 from the field, including 6-7 from three point range. The Cavs repeatedly involved James and Williams in screen/roll plays, forcing the Heat to pick their poison between Cleveland's two All-Stars. James struggled with his shot, making just five of his 15 field goal attempts, but he still managed to produce the 21st regular season triple double of his career (14 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds). James tallied the 3000th assist of his career, becoming the second youngest player to reach that total (24 years, 67 days; Isiah Thomas was 23 years, 322 days old when he joined the 3000 assist club). Wade also shot poorly (9-23 from the field) and he fell just two rebounds short of a triple double (25 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds). Delonte West added 19 points and six assists for the Cavs, while Jermaine O'Neal had his highest scoring game since becoming a member of the Heat three weeks ago (19 points on 7-10 shooting).

The Cavs blitzed the Heat 9-0 in the first 3:39 and never trailed the rest of the way. Four different players scored in that opening outburst, while the Heat looked like they were encased in molasses; both teams were playing the second game of a back to back but Miami looked much more the worse for wear, committing eight first quarter turnovers. The Heat eventually settled down and they only had three more turnovers the rest of the game.

The Cavs pushed their lead as high as 20 points in the second quarter and were up 50-36 at halftime. Both teams sleepwalked through the third quarter, perhaps following the tone set by their leaders during that stanza: James shot 0-4 from the field (though he did have four assists) and Wade shot 1-5 from the field. The Cavs stretched the margin to 19 but the Heat closed to within 70-61 entering the fourth quarter. The old announcing cliche--"As bad as (fill in the blank) has played, they are only down (fill in the blank)"--perfectly described the Heat's situation with 12 minutes to go: they had shot .424 from the field and league scoring leader Wade had only scored 15 points on 5-16 shooting but the visitors still were within striking distance.

Wade's three pointer at the 6:51 mark trimmed the lead to 80-74 and Cleveland was only up 84-76 at the 5:06 mark when Wade and Anderson Varejao contested a jump ball on Miami's side of the court. I was seated next to ProBasketballNews.com editor Sam Amico and turned to him and said, "Watch Wade jump into Varejao's body, steal this tip and possibly give Miami a chance to shoot an open three pointer." Sure enough, Wade jumped into Varejao to nullify the Brazilian's height advantage and then Wade tipped the ball to Mario Chalmers, who missed a three pointer. James got the rebound and on the next possession he passed to Williams for a jumper to extend Cleveland's lead to 86-76. That was a big five point swing but the Heat recovered from that setback to make one final run, coming to within 91-85 after a Michael Beasley jumper at the 2:18 mark. Neither team scored for more than a minute and then Wade made one of his patented full speed drives to the hoop. He collided with Varejao but no foul was called and Varejao grabbed the rebound. An incensed Wade received his second technical foul; the automatic ejection that follows a second technical was the first time that he has been kicked out of an NBA game. Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra also got a technical foul. It certainly looked like Varejao fouled Wade, so I can understand Miami's frustration, even though the technical fouls and ejection essentially killed their chances of winning the game; Williams made both technical free throws and the Cavs led by at least six points the rest of the way.

After the game, Coach Spoelstra said, "We did not come with the right energy, toughness and disposition to start the game. That's the bottom line...We did show some fight and some resolve later on in the game not to let it go. That was encouraging but it became a frustration night. We were all frustrated, including myself. We saw some calls that looked differently (than they were called), but, regardless, the bottom line, I'm not sure if we deserved to win that game."

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown acknowledged James' triple double but said that Williams' shooting was the key: "Mo Williams was terrific for us down the stretch, hitting some big shots time and time again when we needed baskets...We ran side pick and roll with LeBron and Mo and he (Mo) made big play after big play. It was great to see a guy like Mo being able to take over the game offensively to give a guy like LeBron a rest."

The Cavs just finished playing five games in seven days, with James logging at least 43 minutes in three of those games. He and the Cavs generally stay true to their motto of being a "no excuse team" but when someone asked James if tired legs may have had something to do with his back to back 5-15 shooting nights, James replied, "It was a big factor. Personally, I felt good when I came in and worked out before the game but as the game went on, I could tell from my jumper that my legs did not feel particularly well. I tried to do the other things like defend and try to get guys open for shots. Even when I'm not feeling particularly well on the offensive end, I still can find ways to contribute to our team and help us win."

When someone suggested to Williams that it might be said that James had an off game due to his low shooting percentage, Williams replied, "Stats aren't all about shot attempts and what you shot from the field. It's the effect you have on the game...He can be one for whatever and he is still going to draw double teams and triple teams."

Williams said that it did not bother him that most of the pregame attention focused on James and Wade despite the fact that Williams is also an All-Star: "I've never been a person who wanted the spotlight. I'm happy where I am right now. I'm in the perfect position, being with LeBron. He gets all the spotlight and I'm the guy behind closed doors who just sneaks up on you and you don't know where I'm at but all of a sudden I'm there." Like the Lakers' Pau Gasol, Williams has the perfect attitude and temperament to play alongside an MVP caliber player: Gasol and Williams are legit All-Stars can take over on their own at times but they understand and appreciate how much easier the game is for them on a nightly basis because of all of the extra attention drawn by Kobe Bryant and LeBron James respectively. Some players in Gasol's or Williams' shoes would let their egos get in the way and feel the need to prove that they are "the man" but perhaps years of being "the man" on teams that did not go anywhere helped them to understand that only a few guys in the NBA are truly franchise players and it is a blessing to have one of them as a teammate.

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

During his pregame standup, someone asked Coach Spoelstra about the impact that the newly acquired Jermaine O'Neal and Jamario Moon have had on the team and how quickly they have meshed with Wade. Spoelstra said, "Jermaine has really helped. I think this goes understated all the time, the fact that he gives us a presence down there (in the low post) to balance out our attack has meaning. It really does, because he can catch and finish, we can also throw him the ball and run some offense through him that allows other guys to get easy baskets on cuts. We can vary our attack so that (Wade) can rest a little bit and we can play off someone else. The connection with Jamario is a little bit of a surprise. We knew that there were a lot of elements of his game that we liked but the type of connection that he and Dwyane have already with back cuts and lobs and things of that nature--that usually takes a little bit longer to develop."

Coach Spoelstra has done very well in his first season as an NBA head coach. I asked him, "What has surprised you the most about the difference between being a head coach and an assistant coach? What part of that adjustment has surprised you?"

Coach Spoelstra answered, "You think you know what it is when you are just in the other seat but until you are actually making the decisions and sitting in that chair 12 inches away (you don't really know). Your meals, after losses, are a little bit tougher to eat. Your sleep patterns have changed a little bit. I always used to joke about those things with (former Miami Coach) Stan (Van Gundy) and (former Miami Coach) Pat (Riley), because I never had a problem sleeping or eating but now as a head coach it definitely affects you a little bit more."

I then asked Coach Spoelstra, "Is your relationship with the players different now?"

He replied, "That's natural. As an assistant coach, your role a lot of times is to bridge communication between the players and the head coach or to help communicate a message but also to connect on a friendly level. I've created a lot of friendships with players over the years as an assistant coach. You still try to do the same thing as a head coach but that is not always realistic because you don't have as much time and you don't have as much interaction on a day to day level as you do as an assistant coach, when you are working the players out on the court after practice, before practice and in meetings. So, the way you communicate is a little bit different but I still try to reach out to the guys as much as I can."

***

It is sadly ironic that Ben Wallace was on the cover of Cleveland's gameday program, because he has been sidelined for six games with a broken leg. The Cavs are 5-1 since Wallace got hurt, with their only loss coming on Friday at the hands of the defending champion Boston Celtics.

Wallace averages 3.0 ppg and 6.6 rpg in 24.0 minutes per game, so it is easy to belittle his impact, but the Cavs clearly miss the four-time Defensive Player of the Year. After the Miami game, the Cavs rank eighth in the NBA in points in the paint allowed (36.8 ppg) but their performance in this category has markedly declined since Wallace has been sidelined; they have been outscored in the paint 258-176 in those games, which works out to an average of 43.0-29.3. Even taking out Boston's 58 points in the paint explosion on Friday, the Cavs are still giving up several more points per game in the paint than they were when Wallace was playing. They have been outscored in the paint in five of those six games; the Heat only rank 19th in the NBA in points in the paint but even in a losing cause they bested the Cavs 42-34 in that department.

The Cavs rank fourth in the NBA in rebounding differential (+ 3.0 rpg) but this is another area where they have not done nearly as well without Wallace in the lineup; the Cavs and their opponents have each grabbed 240 rebounds in the past six games. The Cavs have been outrebounded three times, outrebounded their opponents twice and tied their opponents once.

During Coach Brown's pregame standup, I asked him, "How has Ben Wallace's absence affected you in terms of giving up so many points in the paint?"

He answered, "He is a terrific defender--and player--for us. I don't know what our points in the paint were with him and without him (because) I am not a huge stat guy but his presence is something that we miss--but just like when Z (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) was out with his length, we have to have other guys step up and we feel confident that other guys can step up and help hold that down. Whether he's here or not, we've got to get that done."

***

Wallace is a good example of a player whose impact on his team's success is not accurately depicted by his individual statistics. Near the end of Coach Brown's standup, the media throng around him thinned dramatically because James had just emerged for the trainer's room for his pregame availability. This provided me the opportunity to ask Coach Brown several questions in a row relating to his perspective on basketball statistics, including how he utilizes statistics in game plan preparation, what numbers he most closely tracks to evaluate his team and his thoughts on Michael Lewis' recent New York Times article about basketball statistics (I offered my take about the Lewis article here). I will present Coach Brown's interesting comments about these subjects in a separate article that will be published soon.

***

After my interview with Coach Brown, I still managed to catch a good portion of James' pregame availability. When I walked over, he was in the middle of answering a question about the MVP race. James said that Kobe Bryant had been the best player in the NBA in other seasons prior to winning the award for the first time last season and that he, Bryant, Wade, Paul Pierce and the other elite players are constantly trying to be the best players that they can be but this does not necessarily lead to winning the MVP trophy.

James also offered a humorous--if not quite mathematically sound--take on the race for the scoring title, saying with a smile, "The statistics that go with scoring are kind of crazy. You can score 50 points and go up two tenths of a point and then you can score 22 points and drop a whole point. Numbers are crazy how they work sometimes but if D. Wade continues to score 40 points I'm not going to keep up with that." Of course, the only way for what James said to be literally true is if the 50 point game happened later in the season and was part of a larger sample of games, while the 22 point game happened earlier in the season when each game has a greater impact on the scoring average. The important thing for Cavs fans is that James is clearly not going to chase the scoring title at the expense of doing what is best for the team--but since part of what is best for the team involves James scoring a lot of points at times, he actually could still end up winning the scoring title anyway.

***

According to the media seating chart, Jay Mariotti was supposed to be seated next to me during the game but I did not see him until after the game, when he showed up for Coach Brown's postgame standup. I joked that he must have found a better seat than the one assigned to him but Mariotti explained that he had spent most of the game working on a column after the news broke that Terrell Owens had signed a one year contract with the Buffalo Bills. It took Coach Brown a bit longer than usual to show up, so I chatted with Mariotti about the twists and turns of his career. I told him that I remembered reading some of his earliest Chicago Sun-Times' columns when he was covering the great Bulls-Knicks playoff series. Mariotti said--half joking and half seriously--"You're bringing a tear to my eye," noting how the newspaper business has basically completely died in the intervening decade and a half. He mentioned that several of the newspapers he worked for during his career--including the great, short lived The National, Frank DeFord's attempt to create a national daily sports newspaper--have gone out of business and I pointed out that Dick Schaap made a similar lament about his career in his autobiography Flashing Before My Eyes. "At least I'm in good company," Mariotti replied. He added that if DeFord started The National today, it would all be online, which would eliminate the distribution problems that drove the paper out of business. I said that maybe DeFord was ahead of his time with the idea for The National and Mariotti agreed, suggesting that ESPN.com essentially represents an online version of what DeFord was trying to create. I held my tongue a bit with that comment, because I don't think that the ESPN.com roster holds a candle to the team that DeFord assembled back in the day.

As for that long ago column about the old Bulls-Knicks series, Mariotti said that then-Chicago Coach Phil Jackson first fanned the flames of conspiracy theories by suggesting none too subtly that the NBA sent certain referees to certain games to get the desired result. It is not clear if Jackson really believed that or was just employing one of his countless mind games. Either way, Mariotti and I agreed that it definitely seemed like Hue Hollins had something against the Bulls in general and Scottie Pippen in particular. Every serious basketball fan knows about Hollins' infamous blown call against Pippen that cost the Bulls a road win in game five of their 1994 series with New York--a series in which the home team eventually won all seven games--but I reminded Mariotti that Hollins was involved in several other questionable calls that went against Pippen and the Bulls, including one that possibly cost them a chance to have 73 wins in 1995-96 (and thus be the only NBA team ever to go through a season with single-digit losses).

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:44 AM

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