Posted: Fri February 15, 2013 2:03PM; Updated: Sat February 16, 2013 11:02AM
Ian Thomsen
Ian Thomsen>THE SIXTH MAN

Houston's breakout star, other All-Star storylines to watch

The Sixth Man (cont.)

The Sixth Man (cont.)

The Sixth Man (cont.)

The Sixth Man (cont.)

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James Harden goes up for a dunk
James Harden is averaging a career-high 26.1 points in his first season with the Rockets.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Here are the talking points for All-Star Weekend as the NBA converges on Houston ...

• Who is going to play? Dwight Howard, James Harden and Carmelo Anthony are all questionable for the All-Star Game Sunday. The most noticeable absentee would be Harden, and not just because he is the lone representative of the host city.

Harden is the breakout star of the NBA this season. Consider that one year ago Harden was coming off the bench for Oklahoma City, and just beginning to establish himself as a favorite for the Sixth Man award for the young Thunder. Not only did he win that award, but he also helped drive the Thunder to the NBA Finals and earned a gold medal on the Olympic team before moving to Houston in the year's most surprising trade and emerging as a go-to star for the promising Rockets. Though the 29-26 Rockets are behind the pace set by their team last year (when they were led by Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry), their newfound core is loaded with upside around 23-year-old Harden, Jeremy Lin (24) and Omer Asik (26) -- all adapting to newfound leadership roles this season.

Harden was meant to make his All-Star debut while serving as de facto host of the midseason exhibition less than four months after he arrived in Houston. It has been a frenzied year, and the latest drama revolves around the sprained right ankle he suffered Tuesday before limping back onto the floor to help lead the team to a win at Golden State. Harden was scratched from the Rockets' loss at the Clippers Wednesday. "I'm not worried at all," he said when asked if he was worried about missing the game Sunday.

MAHONEY: Rockets, Harden a match made in offensive heaven

Anthony suffered a "dead arm" after being hit in the right bicep Wednesday on his way to a 5-for-24 performance on behalf of the slumping Knicks, whose loss to Toronto was their third in four games. After questioning initially whether he would be able to appear in his sixth All-Star Game, Anthony appears ready to play.

Howard's decision could be most controversial. Shouldn't he be resting his sore right shoulder, which has a torn labrum, on behalf of the Lakers rather than exposing himself to more harm in a meaningless exhibition? If he chooses to play then he'll be inviting ever more criticism from those who wonder if he is interested in stardom and popularity at the expense of contributing to the Lakers' larger goal.

Other stars may be limited Sunday. Tim Duncan had missed eight of nine games before returning from a bone bruise in his left knee Wednesday to play 25 minutes in the Spurs' victory at Cleveland. It was San Antonio's 14th win in 15 games, and Gregg Popovich -- who happens to be coaching the West on Sunday -- can be expected to play Duncan minimally.

Duncan's rival, Kevin Garnett, may also be spending most of his time on the bench after playing extended minutes in three games over four nights leading up to the break. Garnett, 36, told reporters this will be his final All-Star Game, which will certainly lead to questions of whether he is considering retirement after threatening to do so last season.

The hard-driving Bulls surely would like to see Luol Deng and Joakim Noah spending most of the game off their feet. Deng leads the league with 39.6 minutes while leading the Bulls in scoring and often defending the top opposing scorer, while Noah (No. 8 in minutes with 38.3) is dealing with plantar fasciitis.

• Will the East start three members of the champion Heat? The answer is yes. Bosh says he was told Friday by Miami coach Erik Spoelstra that he had been chosen to replace injured Boston guard Rajon Rondo in the lineup, making it the first time since 1990 (when the Lakers submitted Magic Johnson, James Worthy and A.C. Green) that an All-Star team features three starters from the same team. Bosh, who was selected by the Eastern coaches, will join LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who were voted in by fans.

The East roster goes against the modern trends of NBA small-ball, featuring five players currently starting at center for their teams -- Garnett, Noah, Bosh, Tyson Chandler of the Knicks and Brook Lopez of the Nets. Both teams will try to run, but the easy prediction is that the West -- brimming with perimeter stars -- will run faster.

• Will Kobe Bryant seek to create for others, as he has recently for the Lakers, or will he be aiming to score? Let me answer this one: He's going to score. A lot.

• Will Garnett have anything to say about Anthony's wife? Of course not.

• What about the other events? Tony Parker should win the skills challenge for the second straight year. Matt Bonner prepared for his future career as a senator or governor of New Hampshire by campaigning his way into the three-point contest. (Notice how I am proudly declining to mention the sponsors.) The dunk contest is expected to be decided by James White and Gerald Green. The annual rookie/sophomore game on Friday is an abomination to basketball and should not be watched by anyone but relatives and close friends of the players and their agents.

• What will happen away from the court? The biggest news will be developing off site. David Stern will be holding his final All-Star news conference as commissioner; his deputy, Adam Silver, will be taking over next year. The players' union is expected to move toward replacing executive director Billy Hunter, who remains under federal investigation amid an objective report, commissioned by the union, that accused him of nepotism, pushing through his own seven-figure contract without oversight and other unsavory business practices. GMs will meet in various lobbies and Starbucks to discuss potential trades in anticipation of the Feb. 21 deadline. Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson will be hoping to convince the NBA to keep the Kings where they are, instead of enabling them to move to Seattle by way of a $525 million sale that was announced last month.

LeBron James drives the ball agsinst the Thunder
LeBron James finished with 39 points as the Heat swept the season series with the Thunder.
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The Headlines

Heat sweep Thunder. Miami entered the break off an impressive 110-100 win at Oklahoma City in a rematch of the NBA Finals. LeBron James (39 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists) outdueled Kevin Durant (40 points, eight rebounds and four assists) as the Heat swept the season series and beat the Thunder for the sixth straight time overall, dating back to last June.

James's NBA record of six straight games of 30 or more points while shooting at least 60 percent ended against OKC because, with 1:03 remaining and Miami holding a 108-98 lead, he attempted and missed a three near the end of the shot clock. If the record had been important to him, then he would have avoided such a needless shot -- which would have enabled him to extend the record to a seventh game.

There has been a lot of talk about Miami's lack of size up front. But when the Heat are at their best, no team in the league can compete with them or the league's presumptive MVP.

Jerry Buss hospitalized. The Lakers' 79-year-old owner has spent time in the intensive care unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and has been visited by several current and former Lakers stars, including Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, according to the L.A. Times, which reported that Buss was suffering from an undisclosed form of cancer. Buss, who is in the Hall of Fame, is the most important and successful NBA owner of modern times, with 10 championships since he bought the Lakers in 1979.

Michael Jordan prefers Kobe Bryant. Jordan told NBA TV that he would choose Bryant ahead of LeBron James, based on the former's 5-1 advantage in NBA championships. "I don't get too involved in what guys say about me," said James, who, frankly, has heard much worse things said of him. Now that James is favored to win his second championship at age 28, Jordan may have change his opinion a few years from now.

Josh Smith on the move? The Hawks' power forward is emerging as the biggest name in what appears to be an uninspiring trade market leading up to the Feb. 21 deadline. Smith, 27, who has never been an All-Star, appeared to price himself out of Atlanta by referring to himself recently as a max player. The Hawks are going to have trouble reaping full value for Smith as he heads toward free agency this summer -- unless, of course, Smith turns out to be wiling to commit long-term to the team that deals for him.

Another Celtic injury. Boston has gone 8-1 while enduring season-ending injuries to three influential members of the rotation -- All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, rookie power forward Jared Sullinger and backup guard Leandro Barbosa, who suffered a torn ACL Monday. The new CBA have limited the Celtics to $1 million of flexibility for the rest of this season (unless they deal one of their existing contracts into a rival team's cap space). At the same time, the improved play of every Celtic from Jason Terry to Jeff Green to Courtney Lee has created new opportunities for team president Danny Ainge to negotiate a trade in the next week -- to improve this year and/or add assets for the long-term.

More trouble for Billy Hunter. The authenticity of a $3 million contract for the union's executive director is being investigated by the U.S. Attorney's office, according to a report by Yahoo! Sports. An outside study of the union's business practices under Hunter's leadership had already raised questions about the validity of Hunter's agreement with the players' association. The questions that must be answered by NBA players when they meet at All-Star Weekend are: (1) Are they aware of how Hunter has been operating their union, and (2) Are they capable of exercising responsibility over their own future?

Nerlens Noel injured. The shot-blocking freshman center of Kentucky suffered a torn ACL during a horrendous fall Tuesday at Florida. Though Noel was not viewed as a franchise player, the upcoming draft is so bereft of stars that Noel -- months before he has recovered -- may still be the NBA's top choice in June.

Grizzlies say they traded Rudy Gay to improve their team. New owner Robert Pera and CEO Jason Levien oversaw a news conference in which they maintained that 26-year-old small forward Rudy Gay was shipped out recently because Tayshaun Prince (who turns 33 next month) and his new teammates were "much stronger" pieces.

"I wouldn't say the players we got back were necessarily better than Rudy," said Pera. "Rudy's a special talent. But for our team and for our fit, I think the personnel and the team we have constructed now is probably the best Grizzlies team when you're looking at the total team and chemistry and how it fits our style of play."

The problem with this pitch is that no one may ever know whether he's right. Two years ago the Grizzlies upset the Spurs in the first round while both Gay and San Antonio's Manu Ginobili were injured. Last year Memphis lost Game 7 of the opening round while Zach Randolph was limited by a knee injury. This appeared to be the year when the Grizzlies would recognize their full potential, based on the health of their core pieces and the years they'd invested in each other. Now that potential has been diminished -- and not because the trade of Gay amounted to a now-or-never steal for the Grizzlies.

My guess -- and it really is only a guess -- is that the Grizzlies will turn out to be less imposing and easier to guard now that opponents don't have to worry about Gay on the perimeter. It would also not be surprising if Gay's former teammates turn out to be demoralized by a trade that appeared -- in the view of rival teams and agents -- to be based on finances rather than on talent. The alternative for Pera and his new group would have been to tell coach Lionel Hollins and players that they had this one chance to prove they were worthy of being kept intact, which might have inspired the team to perform; instead, they've now given the Grizzlies players an excuse to fail. Because now, if Memphis goes out early, everyone is going to blame the owner and the advice he received from his new front office. Years from now, fans in Memphis will be talking about what might have been if Rudy Gay hadn't been traded.

Jay Williams said his former Bulls teammates smoked marijuana before games. "Some guys were high," Williams, the No. 2 pick of the 2002 draft by Chicago, told The New York Times. "There were guys smoking weed before games. Guys asking in the middle of the game, 'Do you smell popcorn?'"

The problem with this statement is that Williams essentially accuses all of his former teammates, when it may have only been a select few. "I like Jay, but when you make blanket statements, you incriminate everyone," Rick Brunson, currently a Bobcats assistant coach, told the Chicago Tribune. "You have to look in the mirror first: 'Did I contribute to some of those things?' Your career didn't go the way it should've gone. Let it go."

Andrew Bynum is unsure when he'll return to the Sixers
Andrew Bynum is no longer optimistic about making his Sixers debut in February.
Matt Rourk/AP

"My thing is, why say these things now?" Donyell Marshall, another former Bull, told the Tribune. "You don't need to be making people assume. You're messing up situations for other people. Now, instead of Fred [Hoiberg, coach of Iowa State] focusing on the NCAA tournament or whatever, he's got to deal with that [crap]."

On the other hand, the news that some players were high while they played for the Bulls should be much more offensive than the fact that Williams outed their behavior. If Williams was telling the truth, then no one can accuse him of tarnishing the game -- because the game was tarnished by the actions of the players and not by the whistleblower.

More patience for Andrew Bynum. The 76ers' injured center acknowledged he was feeling a recurrence of pain in his left knee. "It's just not ready," said Bynum, who was no longer optimistic of making his debut with Philadelphia in February. With the 22-29 Sixers entering the All-Star break four games behind No. 8 Milwaukee, this is looking less like a playoff season and more like a bridge year for Philadelphia, which at the very least was hoping to see Bynum on the floor before having to decide whether to re-invest in him as a free agent this summer.

Royce White reports. The Rockets' No. 16 pick made his D-League debut with seven points, eight rebounds and four assists for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers Tuesday after extended negotiations with Houston over treatment of his anxiety disorder. White was in poor shape physically, which is relatively inconsequential as the Rockets have been viewing him as a long-term investment. If White can approach his potential by the end of his rookie contract then he will have been a steal for the Rockets.

Get To Know Corey Brewer

The 6-foot-9, 188-pound small forward is the leading scorer off the bench (11.3 points) for the deep Nuggets. Brewer, 26, won three championships in the previous seven seasons -- two in the NCAA with Florida, and one in 2010-11 with the Mavericks.

• He was born and raised in rural Portland, a town of fewer than 12,000 in northern Tennessee. "I've been working my whole life for as far back as I can remember. I used to have to go to the tobacco field, the cornfield, with my dad. I was driving a tractor when I was 8 years old. I used to chop the tobacco out as a little kid; I used to lay sticks down, whatever I could do around the farm to help whenever I could, whenever I had time after school. It's not easy. I don't wish that on nobody."

In addition to working on the farm, his father picked up garbage in his truck from house to house. "I used to go with my dad on the trash route, he used to pick up all the trash. Then I also had a job working at Hardees when I was 16, so I flipped burgers a couple years. It all helped me a lot. It taught me a lot about hard work and whatever it takes to get the job done."

Brewer, like his father, is quick to smile. "We were really similar. He was always smiling, always happy, and he would never let anything get him down. I'm going to work hard when I see how hard my dad worked.

"It ain't hard to be upbeat, man. ... That's the way he always looked at it, and that's the way I look at it. Happy to see another day.''

• He didn't love basketball at first. "I liked sports, but my brother was more the basketball player. I liked football and baseball a little bit more. In football you got to hit people, and I could pitch in baseball. Basketball was something my brother was into."

Brewer is five years younger than his brother. "I fell in love with it [basketball] just because of him. If I didn't love it I would have hated it, because my brother made me play every day. I was his little test dummy. We'd go outside and he made me play, he'd beat up on me all the time. Whoever lost had to clean the room or wash the dishes. From the time I was in third grade I don't think I beat him until, like, eighth grade. So I figured if I'm going to get beat up, I got to learn to get some wins.

"He kept playing even after I kept beating him. I still beat him till this day. We play all the time in the summer. We go home and play on the same court [where they grew up playing]. He's like 6-4, he's bigger than me though.

"From my freshman to sophomore year I grew five or six inches. I always wanted to go to Kentucky, because Kentucky is an hour and a half from my house. That's where I thought I was going to go, but they didn't offer me a scholarship. So it ended up coming down to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida, and I thought Florida was the best choice. But I didn't want to leave, because my dad got sick right when I made my decision to go to Florida."

After winning the national championship in 2006, Brewer decided to return along with Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Taurean Green. "I was going to leave [after the first championship] but when I came home my dad was like, 'Don't do it for me. I've lived a long life. Do what makes you happy. If you want to go back to school, go back to school.' When he said that and my mom said the same thing, it was like, why not? I'm having fun. I'm only go to be in college one time, so I decided to go back. I got to play with my best friends again for another year and we won two championships in a row.

"Everybody asks which [championship] was best. You always have to say the first one was the best, because nobody expected us to do it. We was ranked 75th in the country before the season, so to win that one proved to people that we were good. To come back and do it again with all the pressure on us was amazing."

• He adapted to the NBA after being drafted No. 7 overall by the Timberwolves in 2007. "It was a totally different game for me because I got thrown in a system that I wasn't used to at all. I played in Minnesota and we had just traded for Al Jefferson and we were a low-post team and I was like, what is this? All I did was stand in a corner, so I had to try to work on my shot and become a consistent shooter -- whatever I could do to get on the court."

In February 2011 he was traded to -- and quickly waived by -- the Knicks as part of the three-team trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to New York. He found his niche that spring in Dallas, where he came off the end of the bench to contribute to the Mavericks' championship run. The uptempo Nuggets acquired him before last season.

"I like to play fast. That's why it was a good situation when I came here [to Denver], because we play fast, get up and down, and I'm able to make plays. Defensively I can still get better and hopefully one day get on an All-Defensive team. It's all about winning, man, I like winning. So if we can get another championship or two, that would be great."

His father, Ellis "PeeWee" Brewer, died last year at age 68 from multiple illnesses, including diabetes. "My dad had amputations. He ended up getting both of his legs cut off when I was in college. My second year in the league, he went blind. He stayed very happy. Even when he was blind and he had no legs, he'd be smiling all the time. When I came in the house, he'd hear my voice, he'd start laughing and smiling, telling jokes. He was always joking. If he can live through that, nothing should get me down."

John Wall ties his shoelaces
"He doesn't have a feel for the game," agent David Falk said of John Wall (above).
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Quote Of The Week

"I'm not down on John Wall. I just think people want him to be something he's never going to be. He's a big tease. He doesn't have a good enough feel for the game to be an elite player. I don't think he'll ever be the player you think he is."
--David Falk on former No. 1 pick John Wall.

The most important agent of modern times called Mike Wise of the Washington Post to tell him -- on the record, with full attribution -- that Wall will never be a star, even though he's only 22 and has led the Wizards to wins in 10 of 18 games since returning from a serious knee injury.

"I'm serious. He doesn't have a feel for the game," Falk said. "He only knows how to play one speed. Magic Johnson had a great feel, a court sense, by the time he was a sophomore in college. Chris Paul had it by the time he was a sophomore in high school.

"You can develop your jump shot all you want, but if you don't know how to play more than an up-and-down game by the time you're about 20 as a point guard, the chances of learning are very slim. I don't see it happening."

Falk represents Evan Turner of the 76ers, who was the No. 2 pick of the 2010 draft behind Wall.

"The team is going nowhere," Falk said. "Randy [Wittman, the Wizards coach] is doing a great job with minimal talent. You're one of two things in the NBA: either one player away from contending or you're rebuilding. The Wizards are in limbo. I love Ernie [Grunfeld, the Wizards president] and Ted [Leonsis, the owner] but I'd rather have Orlando's team in four years. I wouldn't want [Jordan] Crawford. You think [Jan] Vesely is going to turn into this year's number six pick, Damian Lillard from Portland? No, he's not. And [Trevor] Booker isn't going to turn into Blake Griffin. ... I like Beal. That's it."

Falk's comments make me think that he should have a place on TV as a kind of bookend to Charles Barkley. In much the same way as Barkley views the game as a retired player, Falk could provide insight from the view of management.

"You want to know the reason why just nine teams have won an NBA title in 40 years?'' Falk asked Wise. "Because if both of them came out today, 99 percent of all general managers would still take John Wall instead of Kyrie Irving. They'd take the athlete over the ballplayer. And they'd be wrong."

But then Falk sent an apology to the Post the next day:

"My decision to knowingly allow this discussion to be aired publicly was a mistake. It reflected poor professional judgment.

"Therefore, I want to publicly apologize to both Ted Leonsis and Ernie Grunfeld for publicly expressing opinions that better judgment should have kept private.

"I also want to publicly apologize to John Wall. I hope he either ignores my comments completely or tacks them up on his locker and uses them as motivation. Ultimately, whether or not he becomes an elite NBA player will have far more to do with his dedication and commitment than the opinions of critics, professional or amateur.

"I have lived in Washington for more than 40 years and I am rooting for Ted to make the Wizards a championship team.

"I humbly and publicly apologize for expressing opinions in an inappropriate forum.''

I suppose Falk would have had a short career in TV, after all.

Game Of The Week

The All-Star Game, Sunday 8 p.m. ET. An NBA advance scout provides his opinions on the exhibition this weekend in Houston.

"I really think they should cancel it. I think it's bad for basketball. Remember what Mike D'Antoni said about the Lakers this season? He said, 'We look like an All-Star team.' That tells you everything you need to know about what All-Star teams do. It's bad for the game because all of those guys aren't really playing. They're out there putting on a show instead of playing basketball, and I think it degrades what they do every day. I know it's an exhibition, but even in the preseason or when you're playing a Summer League game in Las Vegas, at least you're out there playing.

"There is no competition to it. Guys aren't out there saying, 'I'm going to stop you.' You can't say somebody made a great move during the All-Star Game because nobody was trying to guard him. What makes the NBA great is when a guy dunks on someone who is trying to stop him from dunking. That isn't going to happen this weekend.

"It's so bad that I honestly think there are some coaches who would rather not participate in it. It doesn't appeal to Gregg Popovich, and I'm sure Larry Brown wanted no part of it. What do we stand for as a league?

"The other thing, from my point of view, is that too many guys are called All-Stars. Roy Hibbert made it last year, but I don't think of him as an All-Star. Jrue Holiday has had a good year, but does he deserve to be there? Shouldn't Kyrie Irving turn his team into a winner before he makes it? I think Jrue is more deserving than Kyrie, even though Kyrie is probably more valuable to his team.

"The All-Star Game used to be more competitive. It has become more and more of an exhibition of guys throwing the ball off the backboard. The former players will watch the All-Star Game just because for them it's like reading People magazine. You watch it so you can talk about it afterward. But I think most people in the league would say it goes against everything we believe in. It certainly isn't for the sport.

"The East team has three centers who can't play together -- you can't play Brook Lopez and Joakim Noah and Tyson Chandler together. They should play each of those guys separately. Lopez is probably the most useless player in the history of the All-Star Game. He's the exact opposite of what they want to see. They'll give him the ball a couple times to score on a guy in the post, but he's going to slow the game.

"Chris Bosh and Kevin Garnett will play at the 4 spot, which is where they should play anyway. In the All-Star Game, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James can play any position. Carmelo Anthony can bring the ball up if they want, it's not like the West is going to see 'Melo handling the ball and say, 'We should trap him!' That isn't going to happen. So the fact that Wade, Holiday and Irving are their only guards isn't so big a deal.

Brook Lopez goes to the hoop against the Magic
"[Brook] Lopez is probably the most useless player in the history of the All-Star Game," said an NBA advance scout.
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

"The West is more balanced, though that shouldn't really be a consideration -- I do think it's more important to pick the guys who are most deserving rather than to pick them by position. I wish Jamal Crawford had made it, because he's had such a huge year for the Clippers.

"I cannot imagine that Dwight Howard [torn labrum in right shoulder] is going to be playing in the All-Star Game. There is no way he can do that. The whole game is embarrassing to basketball, and if he played it would be so insulting.

"Now Tim Duncan [sore knee], that's a different beast. Maybe Duncan dresses and becomes the first `DNP -- Coach's Decision' in All-Star Game history. And then Popovich can get fined again by the NBA.

"I don't think it matters at all to LeBron if he wins this game. I mean, if there's 10 seconds left and it's a tie game or he's down by a point, then it will matter to a guy like him -- it will matter to every guy with the ball in his hands. But if they're down by 15, nobody's going to care.

"What they should have is an All-Star Game with six or seven All-Stars and three or four celebrities on each team, because that's what they're trying to accomplish anyway. The only problem is somebody would get hurt -- a player, I mean -- and then it would be a disaster.

"The rest of the weekend has gotten worse, too. I remember when Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan won the dunk contest. Now it's Jeremy Evans winning it, and LeBron won't even compete in it. Larry Bird used to win the three-point contest and it mattered to him. Now it's Matt Bonner asking to be in it."

All-Dirk Nowitzki Team

What if the All-Star Game was divided by nationality instead of by conference? With basketball still growing around the world, the All-Star Game may yet trend in this direction. Based on the way a U.S. vs. The World format would shape up this year, however, it is clear that the rest of the world hasn't caught up to the U.S. yet, as most of the internationals wouldn't be able to earn a place on the American roster.

Internationals

Starters

C Joakim Noah
F Luol Deng
F Serge Ibaka
G Tony Parker
G Greivis Vasquez

Reserves

C Al Horford
C Marc Gasol
F Nicolas Batum
F Andrei Kirilenko
G Steve Nash
G Jose Calderon
G Manu Ginobili

Americans

Starters

C Chris Bosh
F LeBron James
F Kevin Durant
G Kobe Bryant
G Chris Paul

Reserves

C Dwight Howard
F Tim Duncan (born in U.S. Virgin Islands, played for USA Basketball)
F Carmelo Anthony
F Blake Griffin
G Dwyane Wade
G Russell Westbrook
G James Harden

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