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It's probably too early to call this stretch of the schedule the "dog days" of the NBA season. We're not even halfway into the campaign, after all. But this was a pretty uninspiring week for most of the top teams in the NBA, thanks in part to nagging injuries to key players (Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Kevin Garnett, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol) and some pretty impossible back-to-back sets (San Antonio, Cleveland). There will be a week where the good teams show why they're good teams, but this wasn't it.
Regardless of the circumstances, the general malaise of the top teams in the league make it pretty damn difficult to rank them. Among the six teams ranked in the "championship contenders" category, only the Lakers didn't suffer a loss, and they might as well have, with a close home win over the crappy Golden State Warriors and a buzzer-beating victory over the Tyreke Evans-less Sacramento Kings. Come on guys, you're supposed to make this easy for me! I'm supposed to deliberate over who to place 24th, not who to place first!
But because ranking "none of the above" at the top isn't an option, I did what I could. Here's what follows.
(To see last week's rankings, click here. We'll use the same four categories -- dregs of the league, mediocre clubs, successful, not quite championship-caliber teams and championship contenders -- to separate the teams into tiers).
30. New Jersey Nets: 3-30 overall, 1-1 last week
SBN Blog: Nets Daily
Last week: 30
The Nets move out of their own category this week because they actually won a game, defeating the crosstown Knicks last Wednesday. They're still on pace to break the record for fewest wins in a season (nine, by the 1972/73 76ers), but they're a scintillating 3-12 since starting 0-18, so things are starting to turn around. Plus, if you believe Nets guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, the Nets are simply this year's version of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who also started pitifully (3-29 I believe) and "turned it around" to get 23 wins. Things are looking up, Nets fans!
(Also reason to cheer - SB Nation added a Nets blog, Nets Daily, to its roster. Smiles all around!)
29. Minnesota Timberwolves: 7-28 overall, 0-4 last week
SBN Blog: Canis Hoopus
Last week: 28.
I seriously deliberated for 10 minutes on who to put 28th - the Timberwolves or the Pacers - before finally deciding Indiana's 122-111 win over Minnesota last Saturday was enough to vault the Pacers up. Minnesota's loss in that game was so painful for Timberwolves fans that they decided they'd rather talk about Korean cooking than the Timberwolves. If I could cook, I could use that diversion whenever the Wizards let me down, but I can't. Oh well.
Seriously, Korean cooking! If you want to join, here's how you can.
28. Indiana Pacers: 10-23 overall, 1-3 last week
SBN Blog: Indy Cornrows
Last week: 29
Let's talk about T.J. Ford while we're here. T.J. Ford, according to ESPN's Chris Sheridan, has fallen into Indiana's doghouse and is now squarely on the trade block. You'd think that T.J. Ford would do everything he could to try to get his spot back, whether that's talking to the coach, reevaluating his own game or anything of the sort.
Apparently not, if what he told Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star is to be believed.
[On why he was benched] "I still don't know, I'm still in limbo. Do I plan on talking to (coach O'Brien) about it? No, not really. What's done is what's done. I'm here. If they decide to (trade me) it's not because of me, it's because they choose to. I'm not forcing anybody's hand. Just going to support the people that's playing the same way they supported me when I was playing. There's no salty feelings. It is what it is."
SB Nation's Pacers blog Indy Cornrows goes the diplomatic route, saying he's "fascinated" by guys who don't talk to their coach after they've been benched. I'll go a step further. Hey, T.J. Ford, WAY TO TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS. NOT. Don't let the door kick you on the way out.
27. Golden State Warriors: 9-23 overall, 0-2 last week
SBN Blog: Golden State of Mind
Last week: 26.
Golden State did nothing interesting this week, so I'm instead going to use this space to highlight Vladimir Radmanovic's ridiculous Hail Mary pass into the backcourt to Monta Ellis during their win over the Celtics last week.
(Fast forward to the 1:57 mark).
Most. Dangerous. Play. Ever.
26. Detroit Pistons: 11-21 overall, 0-2 last week
SBN Blog: Detroit Bad Boys.
Last week: 25.
Detroit's losing streak has now reached nine games, and not against premium competition (home losses to the Knicks and the Bulls). Because I'm contractually obligated to make Jim Mora jokes every week, I had to highlight this Detroit Bad Boys post. Playoffs? Don't talk about, playoffs! You kidding me!
25. Washington Wizards: 10-21 overall, 0-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Bullets Forever
Last week: 24
Psh. I could take Flip Saunders one-on-one. Everyone knows he has no answer to my triple pump-fake jab-jab-jab step stepback 20-foot jumper. I learned that one from watching Caron Butler this season. It's unstoppable.
24. Philadelphia 76ers: 10-23 overall, 2-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Liberty Ballers
Last week: 27.
Having watched Eddie Jordan-coached teams very closely for many years, I can tell you that January is always their month. The Wizards' records in January under Jordan: 11-4 in 2004/05, 9-6 in 2005/06, 10-5 in 2006/07 and 9-6 in 2007/08. It's the wonderful time of year after the players learn the kinks of the Princeton offense and before the rest of the league figures it out.
All this is a way of saying you should be prepared for a mini-resurgence from the 76ers this month. Wins over Portland and Denver, both on the road, are just the beginning.
23. Milwaukee Bucks: 13-18 overall, 1-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Brew Hoop
Last week: 21
A home win over Oklahoma City was nice, but this team is slipping into mediocrity. I suppose I could put them higher, but Chicago and New York deserve some metaphorical dap for their strong weeks.
Also, something about Brandon Jennings saying scoring 55 points early in his NBA career was a curse doesn't sit well with me. Is he right on some level? Sure. It elevated expectations during a season where he was learning on the job. I get that. But does Jennings realize how many people dream of scoring 55 points in a game on basketball's highest level? Even if Jennings' season completely goes into the tank (which it won't), he'll always have that moment that everyone dreams of having and so few players achieve. Appreciate your accomplishment, Brandon Jennings! Turn that frown upside down!
22. New York Knicks: 14-20 overall, 3-1 last week
SBN Blog: Posting and Toasting
Last week: 22.
Should they be higher? Probably, but I'm penalizing them for losing to New Jersey. That's unacceptable.
While we're here, can we all just marvel at Nate Robinson. Imagine the despair one must feel when they get benched unconditionally for several games in a row. How many players can still produce 41 points against an elite team like the Atlanta Hawks when called upon for the first time in ages? I'd go on, but Posting and Toasting says it better than I ever could.
Now, listen here. Every smartass in New York has an opinion about what just happened. Some are taking tonight's events as evidence that Mike D'Antoni is an obstinate bum for having shelved such an electric talent. Maybe the Knicks could have been better than 8-6 in the last month if Nate got to spin. Others see Nate's explosion as a product of his benching. Nate himself admitted that the visit to the doghouse humbled him. Maybe D'Antoni's a disciplinary genius for finding a way to reach Robinson? Looking back, the last month either lacked Nate Robinson or honed Nate Robinson's professional game. That's if you choose to look back.
I'll tell you who's not looking back: Nate Robinson. Neither is Mike D'Antoni. Nor the rest of the Knicks. Nate Robinson has returned, and all that matters is what's to come. You, me, and D'Antoni knew Nate could take overa game with his scoring. What we saw tonight was competent point guard play, disciplined defense, and a little less preening. With or without the points, Nate Robinson has a place on the Knicks if he brings all of the above. It's all about filling a need, and the Knicks needed a hero tonight. Mission accomplished.
21. Chicago Bulls: 14-18 overall, 3-1 last week
SBN Blog: Blog A Bull.
Last week: 23
Isn't it funny how getting the mainstream vultures to descend on Vinny Del Negro leads to an extended stretch of strong play? Chicago's still mediocre, but at least they're that, because before, they were downright awful.
If you ask Bulls fans, though, the big change is that Derrick Rose is being more aggressive and drawing more fouls. That's kind of important because the rest of that team's offense is pitiful. Pitiful, I tell ya! I keep telling myself this every time I think about Caron Butler possibly being traded for Kirk (or Kurt) freakin' Hinrich. Please don't do it, Ernie Grunfeld. Please.
20. Los Angeles Clippers: 15-18 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: Clips Nation
Last week: 20
As presently constructed, the Clippers have that 35-win feel. They're mediocre, but not terrible. Quite capable of knocking off some good teams at home, but not capable of any sustained excellence. Nothing special.
HOWEVA, we're getting closer and closer to number one pick Blake Griffin's return from injury. It's coming folks, it's coming! And once it does, the Clippers suddenly on paper look to be much better than mediocre. If Sacramento was November's darling and Memphis was December's darling, the Clippers could very easily be February's darling. (I say February because Griffin's not going to be back until this month). Don't be surprised.
(Also, we're taking applications for January's darling. Step right up, everyone. Requirements: young roster, likely flash in the pan, potential to make mainstream guys gush because they were wrong about you in the first place).
19. Charlotte Bobcats: 14-18 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: Rufus on Fire
Last week: 19.
The 35-win train keeps on chugging, though it's picking up steam after a nice road win over the Cavaliers on Sunday. That win prompted David Arnott of Rufus on Fire to write that the Bobcats "filled me with more confidence in this team, as currently constructed, than I've felt all season." That's nice, but it's still just one win of 35 that they'll get this year. But hey, everyone deserves excitement, so party on, Bobcats fans.
(I will say that, as a Wizards fan, it was nice to see Stephen Jackson, a guy Cleveland could have had very easily, torch the Cavs for 22 points. It was also funny to see Flip Murray, a former Cavalier, hit the big shot to seal the deal. But that's all just because I hate the Cavs).
18. Sacramento Kings: 14-19 overall, 0-3 last week
SBN Blog: Sactown Royalty
Last week: 15.
I can't punish the Kings any more than this, because without Tyreke Evans and Kevin Martin, they're a pretty terrible team. Pretty terrible teams tend to lose a lot of games, and at least the Kings put up a great fight in their loss to the Lakers last Wednesday. So, 18th it is.
Also, kudos to Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty for wondering about the long-term ramifications of "Team Tyreke," Evans' support group ("entourage," if you will) that was wonderfully profiled by Sam Amick of the Sacramento Bee. Ziller's concerns that "Team Tyreke" might wield too much power in making roster changes in Sacramento might not be justified, but Kings fans and Kings front-office personnel have to be talking about these things even at this early stage so they can plan ahead.
17. Toronto Raptors: 17-18, 2-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Raptors HQ
Last week: 17.
Don't look now, but the Raptors have won six of their last seven games. Surprised? Me too. It should be noted that the competition hasn't been great, and the one loss was to a Celtics team playing without Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. Still, this is a far cry from the train wreck this season looked like it would be a month ago.
(Also, can I just say that I'd like to see someone petition the NBA to not allow the Raptors to play Sunday home games. They have this hidden advantage because they play so many afternoon home games on Sundays and teams are never ready for them. Toronto has won their last four home games on Sundays against the following teams: Houston, New Orleans, Detroit and San Antonio. Three of those teams are legitimately decent at worst. That hidden advantage has got to be worth four to five wins over the course of the season, and it has nothing to do with Toronto's play per se.
Bottom line: NBA players deserve the right to go out on Saturday nights, go crazy, and not worry about having a hangover during the game. Give them back that right! What's that, you say? They do that anyway? Doesn't matter. Fight for your right to party!).
16. Utah Jazz: 18-16 overall, 1-3 last week
SBN Blog: SLC Dunk
Last week: 13.
(Step away from the computer and pour yourself a beer. Done? Okay, let's continue).
The Utah Jazz have been in a pretty ridiculous malaise ever since last March. They closed the year terribly last year and have been totally uninspiring this year. Their roster is healthy and not too different from the one that made the Western Conference Finals in 2007. I suppose they have a built-in excuse with the roster uncertainty right now -- Utah is way up against the luxury tax, have several guys (cough Carlos Boozer cough) who are clearly goners after this year and are potentially making some big roster moves soon. At the same time, can you really excuse them for their recent play? A home loss to a Nuggets team missing both Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups? Inexcusable. A third-quarter collapse that turned a certain win over New Orleans on Monday into a loss? Unacceptable. There's talent on this roster and they're all healthy, so why is this happening?
It makes me want to ask this question: If their coach was anyone other than Jerry Sloan, would they still be coaching this team?
I say hell no. Sloan clearly isn't getting through to this bunch, because if he was the real coaching legend that he is, they wouldn't be underachieving this much. This is not to say Jerry Sloan is a bad coach, nor is it to say he's exclusively to blame for Utah's problems. But is it possible that Sloan, like all non-elite NBA coaches after a while, has been tuned out by his players? Absolutely. He's been doing this for a long time and is a coaching legend, but even legends get tuned out eventually. Has that time come for Sloan? I think it has.
Utah's never firing the guy, so this conversation is moot. He means as much to Utah as Gary Williams means for Maryland, so both have lifetime contracts even if they've both slipped from being elite coaches to merely being good ones. But I think it's high time to start assigning some blame to Sloan for Utah's struggles.
15. New Orleans Hornets: 16-16 overall, 3-1 last week.
SBN Blog: At the Hive
Last week: 18.
They're getting somewhere, which is good. Back to .500 is a decent recovery for a team that started so slowly. But this is still not a team worthy of being in the next category. New Orleans is 13-3 at home and 3-13 on the road, a mark that would make the Jazz proud.
On the bright side, Devin Brown dropped 30 points on the Utah Jazz last night, which wouldn't be notable except for the fact that New Orleans tried to dump him off on Minnesota to get closer to the luxury tax line earlier last week. He had to come back to the team after they all figured he was already traded. Awk-ward.
14. Miami Heat: 17-15 overall, 1-3 last week.
SBN Blog: Peninsula is Mightier
Last week: 12.
Did you know that Miami has not had more than a three-game winning streak OR more than a three-game losing streak all season? If that doesn't define average, I don't know what does.
On the (not so) bright side, Miami's win over Atlanta on Monday reminded us of last year's Heat-Hawks first-round playoff series, otherwise known as "the most boring seven-game series in NBA history." Whenever the best moment of a playoff series is a missed dunk, you know it sucked.
13. Memphis Grizzlies: 16-16 overall, 2-0 last week.
SBN Blog: Straight Outta Vancouver
Last week: 16
Will Memphis really be the 13th-best team in the league at the end of the season? Probably not. Is Memphis a playoff team? I'd guess no. But for one week at least, they deserve to be placed in this tier. Why? Memphis 128, Phoenix 103. In Phoenix. When Phoenix was well-rested. After Phoenix routed the Lakers and the Celtics at home earlier in the week. Yeah, it's bigger than, well, anything that's happened to Memphis in years.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder: 19-15 overall, 3-1 last week.
SBN Blog: Welcome To Loud City
Last week: 11.
I'm penalizing them only for losing to a reeling Bucks team last Saturday. Still, it's worth noting that a) Oklahoma City has 10 road wins, tied for fourth-best in the entire league, and b) is ranked sixth in defensive efficiency, surrendering just 103.6 points per 100 possessions. Yeah, yeah, Kevin Durant is awesome, Kevin Durant is insane, yada yada yada. All true. But could you ever imagine a team this young simultaneously being one of the best road teams and one of the best defensive teams in the league? Give coach Scott Brooks a lot of credit for that.
11. Denver Nuggets: 21-13 overall, 1-1 last week
SBN Blog: Denver Stiffs.
Last week: 10.
Shrug. Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups are banged up, so what do you expect? They're in a holding pattern until those guys get healthy again (which they will). Once they do, they'll move up the list. Don't you all worry.
10. Portland Traiblazers: 22-14 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: Blazers Edge
Last week: 9.
Another shrug here. This team is so short-handed that there will probably be some stretch where they just fall off the map and fade, but that stretch hasn't quite arrived yet. Maybe it will soon, maybe it will later. Maybe it won't ever arrive, because Brandon Roy is too good and Nate McMillan is the type of coach who does his best work when undermanned. The point, though, is that it hasn't yet, which is why they're still up this high.
Also, JUWAN HOWARD, WITH NO REGARD FOR HUMAN LIFE!
Clippers' broadcaster Ralph Lawler's reaction to that was "Turn back the clock baby," but I don't remember Juwan Howard ever doing that ten years ago. It probably would have been more appropriate for Lawler to say "Take us out of this parallel universe, baby" instead.
9. Phoenix Suns: 21-13 overall, 1-1 last week
SBN Blog: Bright Side of the Sun
Last week: 7
Should I assign more weight to last Wednesday's home beatdown of the Celtics, or last Saturday's home blowout loss to the Grizzlies? I'm going to go with the latter, because Boston is banged-up and the loss to Memphis happened more recently.
Still, the more interesting thing with the Suns right now is that we're inching closer to the third annual "What is Amare Stoudemire's future in Phoenix" merry-go-round. If you'll recall, Chad Ford said last year that he was 80 percent sure Stoudemire was going to be traded. Hah! This year, there's the added element of Stoudemire's free-agent status next offseason, assuming he opts out of the final year of his current contract of course. Bright Side of the Sun has an excellent piece up now that weighs all the different courses of action the Suns can take this time around. Check it out here.
8. Houston Rockets: 20-14 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: The Dream Shake
Last week: 14
I ranked the Rockets too low last week, so I'll overcompensate and possibly rank them too high this time around. Some readers made some very good points about Houston's brutal schedule last time that I hadn't considered.
As far as this week goes, they were a late fourth-quarter collapse away from being 3-0 against quality competition (Dallas, New Orleans twice). I'd say that's a stronger week than all of the teams behind them by far. Therefore, I'll vault them up ahead of Portland, Denver, Phoenix and Oklahoma City on the strength of their recent play. To balance things out, I'll show highlights of their one loss to New Orleans last Sunday.
As a final thought, can we finally put to rest the notion that players who are productive in limited minutes cannot sustain that production with extended time? The Dream Shake took a look at Carl Landry this season and found that Landry's maintained and even improved his output this year even with extended minutes. Landry joins a long list of players that includes Michael Redd, Jermaine O'Neal, Paul Millsap and others that have gotten better with more minutes. Logic infinity, stupid arguments that sound like they make sense zero.
7. Atlanta Hawks: 21-12 overall, 0-4 last week.
SBN Blog: Peachtree Hoops.
Last week: 4.
Epic fail of a week for the Hawks. It was their first big-test stretch of the year and a chance to prove they belonged among the league's elite. Instead, they lost twice to the Cavaliers, then followed those up with a stinkbomb loss at home against the mediocre Knicks and a "we don't care to show up" loss in Miami on Monday. I don't want to echo Dennis Green here, but his phrase is what fits best here. The Atlanta Hawks are who we thought they were.
It didn't take long for Hawks fans to bring up the same old talking points they've used in the past to express concern with the team. Mike Woodson's unimaginative offense? Check. The lack of a locker room leader that will kill the team for uninspiring efforts? Check. Joe Johnson acting like a super-duper star instead of merely a very good player? Check (okay that was cheating, Kelly Dwyer said that, not Hawks fans).
And you know what? All should be brought up. I'm not going to go so far as to say that these were issues even when the Hawks were kicking butt. They were there, but I felt like progress was being made to solve them. But as last week showed, the Hawks still clearly need to make way more progress to solve those problems if they want to go anywhere in the playoffs. They're going backwards now, and that's bad.
6. Dallas Mavericks: 23-11 overall, 1-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Mavs Moneyball
Last week: 5
I'm dropping them back to this tier because of that unacceptable blowout loss to the Lakers on Sunday. The Lakers were without Ron Artest and eventually also lost Pau Gasol, yet they still beat the Mavericks by 35 points. I know that Dallas played in Sacramento the night before, and I know they were missing Erick Dampier, a surprisingly-important player, especially against big frontlines like the Lakers, but that's just not something an elite team does. I'm sorry. Case closed. Take it to the bank. Period. (Okay, I'm done with the misplaced dramatic prose to end this paragraph).
Even worse, the Mavericks couldn't even get high fives after free throws right in that game. When Adam Morrison is cutting in the way of your high fives, you've got problems.
5. San Antonio Spurs: 20-12 overall, 3-1 last week
SBN Blog: Pounding the Rock.
Last week: 8
They're almost ready to be back in that top tier. Almost. Personally, I don't blame them for losing at Toronto on Sunday, only their third loss since December 9. There was a perfect storm of elements working against San Antonio (the road back-to-back, the fact that they went from Miami to DC to Toronto in the span of three days and the dreaded Toronto Sunday home game jinx), and Gregg Popovich knew it, because he brought Tim Duncan off the bench. So, whatever.
I still need to see San Antonio beat somebody good before I put them back in the championship contender category. It's not the Spurs' fault that their schedule has been soft, of course. They're only doing what they're supposed to do. But this still feels like a team that hasn't quite clicked, which is somewhat understandable considering all the roster turnover they had in the offseason. If/once the Spurs do click, the rest of the league better watch out, but it hasn't happened yet and it may never happen.
4. Orlando Magic: 24-9 overall, 2-1 last week
SBN Blog: Orlando Pinstriped Post.
Last week: 6
Happy Mike and Grumpy Mike had an argument last night over the Magic as we tried to figure out where to place them. (Just to be clear, this is a fun exercise. I don't actually have two personalities).
Happy Mike: The Orlando Magic are in very good shape and are better than last year
Grumpy Mike: The Orlando Magic are still struggling, and while they might be more talented, they have less cohesion and chemistry.
Happy Mike: Well, of course they do! They had to integrate so many new pieces. The bottom line is that they're more dangerous and getting better.
Grumpy Mike: But some of those pieces (Brandon Bass) don't ever play and won't ever play.
Happy Mike: Fine. But you can't deny the team is getting better. Everyone's healthy. Their defense, which was a struggle early in the year, has risen to fifth in the league. Vince Carter is getting better. Their offense is better this year (7th) than it was last year (11th).
Grumpy Mike: I get that. But there are still some major lingering issues, as Orlando Pinstriped Post points out. Point guard defense, for one. Dwight Howard's continued lack of offensive development, for another. Maybe those get solved, but they're still pretty troubling.
Happy Mike: Fine, fine. How does fourth sound?
Grumpy Mike: Whatever. Can we eat dinner now? I'm grumpy.
(Fourth works for now. They're clearly a title contender, but they also clearly have some kinks to work out).
3. Boston Celtics: 24-8 overall, 1-2 last week.
SBN Blog: Celtics Blog.
Last week: 2
I'm still not too concerned about the Celtics, because their recent struggles have coincided with some nagging injuries. But anytime the words "Kevin Garnett" and "injured knee" show up in the same sentence, there's reason to freak out. Garnett's recent knee hyperextension could be nothing, or it could become a major problem down the road. If Garnett is out for a long time, Boston's title hopes go with him, especially when you consider how disappointing Rasheed Wallace, Garnett's potential replacement, has been.
In the meantime, let's at least give Boston credit for winning over Toronto without arguably their three best players. That's impressive.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: 27-6 overall, 3-0 last week
SBN Blog: Silver Screen and Roll
Last week: 3
I'll put them ahead of the Celtics because the Lakers actually won all their games this week, including a very impressive beatdown of the Mavericks at home that reaffirmed their place head and shoulders above anyone in the West. But like Boston, injuries are a concern. Ron Artest is coming back soon, but Pau Gasol is banged-up again. Like Boston, the Lakers don't have the depth to survive these issues long-term. Close home wins over Golden State and the Kings without Tyreke Evans prove that.
Still, the Lakers have Kobe Bryant, and Kobe once again proved you should always fear him when the game is on the line, even if he got some help from Sergio Rodriguez falling down and leaving him wide open.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: 27-9 overall, 3-1 last week
SBN Blog: Fear the Sword
Last week: 1
The loss to Charlotte at home on Sunday wasn't great, but Cleveland had won seven in a row, including a win in LA and a sweep of the Hawks, so I'm not going to get too worked up over it. Cleveland still has flaws, and they desperately need a floor-spacing power forward like Antawn Jamison or Troy Murphy, but they've proven they're the best team in the league right now, especially when you consider all the other contenders' struggles. All that needs to happen now is for someone to knock them off for my own sanity as a Wizards fan. Please please please!
(Seriously, I can't tell you how much Cleveland winning the title would hurt me. It would hurt me physically, mentally, emotionally, whatever. Believe me).
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