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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Golden State Versus Cleveland Preview

NBA Finals

Golden State (67-15) vs. Cleveland (51-31)

Season series: Tied, 1-1

Cleveland can win if…LeBron James is not only productive but also engaged, if the Cavaliers are committed defensively and if James' deep supporting cast continues to play at a high level.

It has been suggested that (1) the Cavaliers are massive underdogs who can only win this series if James plays at a historically great level and (2) if the Cavaliers beat the Warriors then James will have equaled, if not surpassed, Michael Jordan. I disagree with both premises.

I agree that on paper the Cavaliers are the underdogs; that is self-evident based on the teams' won-loss records and the resulting fact that the Warriors enjoy homecourt advantage. However, the notion that the Cavaliers consist of LeBron James and a bunch of nobodies is ridiculous. James has two All-Star/borderline All-NBA caliber teammates: Kyrie Irving is a tremendous clutch shooter, perhaps the best one on one scorer in the league and an underrated passer, while Kevin Love is a premier scorer/rebounder/three point shooter/outlet passer who has accepted the Chris Bosh third option reduced role. Both of those guys can have big games against any team that is unwilling or unable to commit adequate defensive resources toward stopping them.

Tristan Thompson is the Cavaliers' Horace Grant, a reliable rebounder who is tenacious and versatile defensively (Grant was a better shooter, while Thompson is more physical). J.R. Smith is a very talented wild card who can be a defensive stopper and a deadly three point shooter.

Then, the Cavaliers bring off of the bench two former All-Stars: Deron Williams (who not that long ago was considered to be neck and neck with Chris Paul as the best pure point guard in the league) and three point marksman Kyle Korver. The Cavaliers' bench also includes Richard Jefferson (who was a 20 ppg scorer for the Nets back when they were an elite Eastern Conference team that advanced to two NBA Finals) and Channing Frye, a quintessential "stretch four."

Cleveland's All-Star triumvirate supported by former All-Stars/players who started for good playoff teams is reminiscent of the talent/depth that the best teams of the 1980s used to have.

Of course, everything runs through and around James, who has been extraordinarily productive during the 2017 playoffs, even by his lofty standards: 32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 7.0 apg, .566 FG% (including .421 from three point range) in 40.9 mpg. During Cleveland's five game romp over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, James averaged 29.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 6.8 apg while shooting .580 from the field (including .345 from three point range) in 38.6 mpg.

It is not an accident or a fluke that the Cavaliers went 12-1 in the Eastern Conference playoffs--and they easily could have been 12-0 if not for a 21 point blown lead capped off by Avery Bradley's buzzer-beating, game-winning three pointer in game three of the Eastern Conference Finals. James' aforementioned numbers would have been even greater if he had not mailed in his game three performance (11 points on 4-13 field goal shooting in 45 desultory minutes).

That brings us straight to the Cavaliers' three biggest weaknesses/question marks: (1) Their defensive effort/execution is often subpar, (2) they occasionally do not treat their opponents with much respect and (3) James--more than any other Pantheon-level player--has a baffling propensity to quit/become disengaged/become passive (choose the adjective that you prefer, as some people find "quit" to be too strong a term even though it seems to best describe the phenomenon). Just to be clear, every Pantheon player has had bad games during their primes and some of them even had a bad series but James has had games/series during which it looked like he just did not care. At least this time, James (1) admitted that he played poorly instead of defiantly proclaiming that he had "spoiled" fans with his previous excellent play and (2) did not let whatever mental state he entered in game three linger into games four and five. If James quits for even just one game in the NBA Finals then the Cavaliers will surely lose, because they do not have the necessary margin of error to give away a game for any reason.

James will almost certainly be productive versus the Warriors but he must also be engaged during the entire series. Sadly, there is no way to predict whether or not that will be the case.

That melancholy thought brings us to point number two, namely the "ghost" (Michael Jordan) that LeBron James has openly stated that he is "chasing." Sparky Anderson once said that he would never embarrass another catcher by comparing him to Johnny Bench. I am not comfortable definitively naming Jordan (or anyone else) as the greatest basketball player of all-time but I feel comfortable saying that he is the greatest player of the past 30 years of so--call that the "modern" era if you want to, though of course the meaning of "modern" inevitably shifts over time--and I do not feel like the competition is that close. Kobe Bryant was the closest thing to Jordan at the shooting guard position since Jordan retired, Shaquille O'Neal was very dominant, Tim Duncan was consistently great (though not as dominant or imposing as O'Neal) and LeBron James is a marvelous all-around player but I would not take any of those guys over Jordan.

In the classic book Wait Til Next Year by William Goldman and Mike Lupica, Goldman noted that after enough time passes, virtually every great athlete's resume and accomplishments are belittled in a way that would have been unimaginable during that athlete's prime. Goldman called the athlete's struggle to stay relevant a battle "To the Death" and he asserted that Wilt Chamberlain was perhaps the only athlete who grew more legendary over time, because we are reminded of his greatness every time someone becomes the first to do "this" or "that" since Chamberlain.

Not long ago, it would have been inconceivable to attack Jordan's resume but now we hear rumblings that the competition in his era was not so good and that his record of six championships/six Finals MVPs in six attempts is somehow tainted because he suffered several first round losses and may have suffered more such losses (or perhaps lost in the Finals, ending his perfect record) if he had not retired for about 18 months to play baseball.

Many people seem to have forgotten that, at least on paper, Jordan's Bulls were underdogs in the 1993 and 1998 Finals; in both of those series, the Bulls defeated the team that had the best regular season record and that season's MVP. If your retort to that is that "everyone knew" that Jordan was better than Charles Barkley and Karl Malone respectively, then it must also be acknowledged that "everyone knows" that James is better than Kevin Durant. The idea that Jordan did not face significant competition is ridiculous; he just made it look that way in retrospect because he was so dominant (with more than a little help from Scottie Pippen, of course, but there have been few championship teams that truly only had one star player).

The significance of Jordan's six for six accomplishment is that every time Jordan had a team that was good enough to advance to the Finals he won the title and he was the primary reason that his team won the title (though one could perhaps argue that Pippen was at least in contention for one or two of those Finals MVPs, depending on how much one values Pippen's all-around excellence versus Jordan's scoring dominance combined with very good all-around play). A team that loses in the first or second round was just not good enough to win a championship (unless there are mitigating factors such as a serious injury to a key player or the best player just quitting when his team had a great opportunity to win). James has lost in the Finals four times and on at least three of those occasions he was outplayed by lesser players who won the Finals MVP (Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Andre Iguodala). During the 2011 Finals, James was not only outplayed by all-time great Dirk Nowitzki but he was also outplayed during key moments by Jason Terry.

Isiah Thomas has said that after his college coach Bobby Knight first coached Jordan in the Olympics, Knight said, "This one is a little different." It has also been noted that Knight advised Portland to draft Jordan and when the Portland brass stated that they needed a center Knight replied, "Then play him at center."

Those two quotes sum up Jordan compared even to the great players who followed him: he is just a little different and he would do whatever it takes to win in any situation. Jordan just had some levels and some skills that I don't see even in Kobe, Shaq, Duncan or LeBron, who are clearly the four best players of the post-Jordan era.

If James and the Cavaliers win the championship this season, then James will be 4-4 in the NBA Finals. Four rings is impressive in any era and any context but a 4-4 record on the game's biggest stage does not come close to a 6-0 record--period. Jordan never lost as the favorite and when he lost as an underdog he put up a hell of a fight. James' quitting and his losses as a favorite are part of his resume. Even if he wins six rings, he still has gaps and holes on his resume that cannot be filled when comparing him to Jordan.

Bottom line: if Cleveland wins this series it is an upset but not an upset of monumental proportions; nothing that James does in this series can vault him past Jordan.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors are fully healthy and fully committed. It is not often that a team has two legitimate MVP candidates/top five players in the league but when that does happen then championships tend to ensue: Kareem/Magic, Moses/Doc, Jordan/Pippen, Shaq/Kobe. I don't know what the official MVP results will say but the reality is that Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are former MVPs who both rank among the league's top five players.

Durant has sustained his excellent regular season play (25.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 4.8 apg) during the playoffs (25.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.7 apg), while Curry has elevated his regular season play (25.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6.6 apg) during the playoffs (28.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.6 apg). The Warriors did well for the most part when Durant missed 20 regular season games but when the Warriors have been at full strength Durant has clearly been their best player, though the gap between Durant and Curry has not been significant during the playoffs to this point.

Draymond Green provides great all-around play but he is in the perfect role on the perfect team for his talents; if he had to create his own shot as the number one option then he would not be nearly as effective, nor would he average anywhere close to 7 apg if he were not surrounded by three all-time great shooters.

Klay Thompson had an excellent--if somewhat overlooked--regular season but he has struggled with his shot during the playoffs. Even a slumping Thompson is still a problem for opposing defenses, because it would be a risky strategy to dare him to make open shots for an entire series.

Like the Cavaliers, the Warriors have a deep bench filled with former All-Stars and players who have previously been starters for playoff teams.

Some say that the Warriors' regular season success and one championship represent a vindication of Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns but, if anything, these Warriors are a repudiation of D'Antoni's philosophy: D'Antoni minimizes the importance of defense because he believes that in the long run a barrage of three pointers will prevail over a team that shoots two pointers; the Warriors are an elite defensive team that can win grimy, low scoring games if necessary, though of course they prefer to be involved in shootouts.

D'Antoni's Suns and Rockets are like basketball junk food; it may look good/taste good in small quantities but consumed in large quantities it is not so good. In contrast, the Warriors play a fun style that does not mock traditional basketball values such as defense and rebounding.

Other things to consider: Mike Brown has not lost a game since taking over as Golden State's interim head coach in the wake of the complications that have afflicted Steve Kerr as a result of back surgery. Many media members openly mock Brown but he is a very good coach, as demonstrated by the results that he has produced throughout his career, posting a 347-216 regular season record, a 47-36 playoff record prior to going 12-0 this postseason and winning the 2009 NBA Coach of the Year award. He led the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals early in James' career and then guided the Cavaliers to 66 and 61 wins in the 2009 and 2010 campaigns respectively; the opportunity to win a championship at the expense of a star player who quit on him during the 2010 playoffs should not be dismissed as a factor in this series.

Although the Warriors and Cavaliers have both fully embraced the new era philosophy regarding volume three point shooting, both teams are throwbacks in terms of how they are constructed; most of the modern NBA teams have one star surrounded by role-playing specialists but the Warriors and the Cavaliers have multiple All-Stars backed up by players who were All-Stars during their primes. That combination of talent and depth--in addition to injuries suffered by key players on opposing teams--largely explains why neither team has been challenged very much up to this point.

Based on historical pedigree, we are looking at all-time greatness: the Warriors have posted the best three year regular season run in NBA history and have made it to three straight Finals while winning one title; the Cavaliers have not matched the Warriors as a regular season juggernaut but they have also won one title while making it to three straight Finals. In addition, LeBron James extended his personal streak of Finals appearances to seven, which is something that has not been accomplished since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics in the 1960s.

This is the first time that the same two teams have met in three straight NBA Finals; Kareem and Magic faced Dr. J three times in a four year span from 1980-83 and then Kareem and Magic faced Bird, McHale and Parish three times in a four year span from 1984-87. The Kareem/Magic Lakers are viewed as the team of the 1980s in large part based on taking two out of three in both of those trilogies and the winner of the 2017 Finals will also likely assume an exalted place in pro basketball history.

The Warriors are like a basketball Death Star; they only have one weakness and it is not easy to exploit: teams that are willing and able to attack in the paint offensively without compromising their defensive floor balance can beat the Warriors. We saw this from the Cavaliers during the final three games of the 2016 Finals and we saw this from the San Antonio Spurs for the first three quarters of game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals before Zaza Pachulia's two step closeout took Kawhi Leonard out and effectively ended the Spurs' opportunity to compete with the Warriors. We will never know if the Spurs would have been willing and able to sustain that method of attack throughout the series but for over 30 minutes the Warriors looked quite mortal.

Will LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson pound the Warriors inside, opening things up for the Cavaliers' three point shooters to do damage if the Warriors are forced to collapse into the paint? As suggested above, the Cavaliers are capable of doing this but I do not believe that they will do this enough throughout the series, so I expect that Golden State will prevail.

Before the playoffs began, I picked Golden State over Cleveland in six games and after observing these teams storm through their respective conferences I will stick with that prediction.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:46 PM



At Tuesday, May 30, 2017 11:02:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

I like the junk food analogy... funny but very apt analogy.. . Good one buddy

At Wednesday, May 31, 2017 5:50:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

It is interesting that for a while there I felt like I was on the "hater" side of Jordan. He is absolutely the best player I have ever seen play but I thought the praise he got was a bit hyperbolic. Now that the wind is shifting I find myself in the other camp, thinking how are they comparing Lebron to MJ with a straight face?

I completely agree that none of those guys compare to Jordan except maybe Shaq at his absolute peak (in terms of impact). Lebron is incredible but needs to take his game to another level to compare with Jordan.

At Wednesday, May 31, 2017 11:14:00 AM, Blogger José Manuel Gómez García said...

Hi David,

Great analysis, as usual. As you, I can´t even think in the Cavs as a “massive underdogs”, but it’s true that it’s being difficult to find anyone who presents Cleveland as a favorite with justified arguments (if you don’t consider having Lebron as an argument itself) but I have to admit that I am one of those who is almost 100% agree with the two sentences of your second paragraph.

Cleveland is a good (if not very good, at least on paper) team, with more depth and with the best player of the finals on its side, but I think that all the James’ supporting cast reached the peak of their careers years ago (maybe with the exception of Irving (?) and Thompson) and past achievements cannot be counted forever when analyzing the present value of a player, so the overall consideration is “contaminated” by the presence of Lebron. I don’t know if James has to play at a historically great level, but I would say that he must play the best basketball of his career if Cleveland wants to have a chance in these finals. I think that we all be agree in saying that the best possible version of the Warriors is far better than the best possible version of the Cavs, but this scenario usually doesn’t happen.

Of all the duos you mentioned related to the modern era (Kareem/Magic, Moses/Doc, Jordan/Pippen, Shaq/Kobe and I would add Bird/McHale), the “second banana” was a better player in the championship years than Irving currently is (and will be?) and, as you pointed, it has been historically required a great second option to opt for a ring. I don´t have doubts about who is the better player of the finals but the second, third and fourth player belong to the Warriors, being, at least for me, Irving and Klay on a par for the fifth spot and I can’t find any other case in the last 40 years in which there was such a gap between the first and second option as there is in Cleveland. And I would have doubts about Love being better than third options like Worthy, Toney, Grant, Parish… I can think only in Derek Fisher as a worst overall player.

At the end, all of this make me think that Lebron will have to be in a Jordan mode in offense and in a Pippen mode on defense and in terms of leadership to face those Warriors, with the rest of the team showing too the best version both on defense and offense to win again this year and erase the three question marks you mentioned, in which I think you are totally right.

Over the “best basketball player of the history” debate, I do believe that Lebron has taken (and is taking) the appropiate steps to be in the discussion in terms of individual stats (no comments), durability (he’s never missed a playoff game, no serious injuries), collective success (in eleven years 3 rings in 8 finals' appearances, with teams like the 2007/08 Cavs which can be properly named “James and a bunch of nobodies” plus 1 ECF and 2 ECSF, heroics (last year’s finals being the ultimate example, even accepting all the red flags you pointed)and prolonged peak. Just being in the discussion when maybe he still has three or four big seasons in his pocket is already a big accolade, and if he ends up with, let’s say, 5-5 in the finals, 5 MVPs and being the first player with +40,000 points, +11,000 rebounds and +10,000 assists, well, I think that we all should accept the debate.

Finally, I would have given Pippen the MVP in 1991 and 1997.

Thanks for the article David.

At Wednesday, May 31, 2017 12:29:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I think you have a rosier view of the Cavs than I do, David.

Lebron is superhuman, but the 2nd-5th best players in the series are on the other side, including two MVPs and a likely DPOY. Irving and Love are both great offensive players who stink on D. In fact, Cleveland as a whole is a dumpster defensively. Lebron and Thompson are great, but the third best defensive player on the team is either Smith or Shumpert, both of whom have stretches of brilliance tempered by stretches of inconsistency. After that, it's either Channing Frye or Richard Jefferson which... isn't what you want against the greatest offensive team in recent memory.

It is true that Williams and Korver are former All-Stars and both are good role players but both are also a shell of what they once were. Korver used to be competent defensively but at this point he's a traffic cone, and Williams is no longer an A-tier PG by an stretch of the imagination.

Don't get me wrong, the Cavs are a very good team but they pale beside the Warriors, and comparing them to the super teams of the 80s strikes me as silly. I'd rather have Toney or Worthy than Irving, nevermind Doc or Magic, and there's no Bobby Jones/Michael Cooper designated super-stopper coming off that Cleveland bench.

For all the talk of their switch-flipping, the Cavs so far in the playoffs are posting a D-RTG of 108.5 against some pretty lackluster offensive competition (particularly with Thomas and Lowry missing large chunks of their series). That would rank about 12th or 13th in the league over the course of a full season (you know, right where Mike D'Antoni's best teams you love to bash usually ranked) and is going to get a lot worse against the historically significant Warriors offense. I wouldn't be surprised if the Warriors average close to 120 per game, even.

As for Mike Brown, he's a great defensive coach but a poor in-game adjuster, but that weakness is mitigated against Lue, who's even worse. Additionally, while Kerr may not be on the sideline he's still involved and still brilliant. Coaching advantage to the Warriors.

That isn't to say Cleveland has no chance, though. Count me as one of those who thinks Lebron needs to put up something in the neighborhood of 38-10-10 on 55% or so for them to win, but you're correct that there's money to be made by attacking the Warriors inside. Without Bogut, the Warriors no longer have true rim protection (though Green and Durant both make some excellent defensive plays, they simply aren't that kind of player) and the Warriors are an unremarkable rebounding team. If Lebron can put up video game numbers on high efficiency and the Cavs completely dominate the boards and the paint, they've got a puncher's chance.

Still just a puncher's chance, though. Warriors in 5 (though 6 wouldn't shock me).

At Wednesday, May 31, 2017 3:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jose, James and that bunch of nobodies in 2007 won 50 games compared to 2017 CLE, which won 51 games. Either his cast in 2007 really was a bunch of nobodies or he greatly underachieved this year.

In 2007, CLE beat 2 41-41 teams to reach the ECF, hardly a great accomplishment. Then, he played well, but not entirely great(struggled in 3 of the 6 games), vs just a 53-win DET team, that was no longer a contender before he got punked by Bowen in the 2007 Finals. It's always a great accomplishment to make the finals, but we need to remember the facts and how it happened. Any supposed all-time great should've been able to reach the finals in 2007 vs the teams he faced in the East. CLE would've been a 6 seed in the West that year and been lucky to make it out of the 1st round, though.

As far as James being the best player in the Finals, it's just barely. It's hard to see CLE coming close to winning as long as GS doesn't sustain any major injuries and plays remotely smart. CLE might be struggling on defense, but it doesn't really matter vs GS, everyone struggles vs them. You have to be able to outscore them, which is why CLE having Irving/Love as their #2/#3 best players is probably best-case scenario. Irving was clearly the 2nd-best player in the 2016 finals, barely behind James, and was good enough to win Finals MVP in many years. Without him outplaying Curry and the best basketball of his life, GS wins.

Brown's a good coach, but not great. Not really sure about Lue, but Lue has a ring, Brown doesn't. What we're seeing with the rotating coaches in GS over the past few years(Kerr, Walton, Brown-first 2 were rookie coaches) is anyone can step in for GS and do a great job and that Kerr isn't necessarily that great, but hard to exactly say. Walton was absolutely amazing coaching GS, and now his current team is pitiful, so did he suddenly become a terrible coach overnight taking the LAL job?

I understand James' Finals record vs Jordan, but making 8 finals is much more impressive than making just 6, though winning 6 vs 3(or possibly 4) is obviously better. If James finishes 6-4 in Finals for his career, that's much more impressive than 6-0 since he made 4 more finals if we look at nothing else. I feel James is highly overrated, but you're penalizing him for going deeper into the playoffs more often, though in the much weaker conference for his entire career I might add to put it in perspective. If Jordan had to face teams like GS every time in the Finals, he'd have several Finals losses most likely, plus Jordan's casts on average were certainly better than James' casts.

At Wednesday, May 31, 2017 4:54:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

As for the Jordan/Lebron comps, I have Jordan quite a bit ahead of Lebron still, but I think if one were going to make the case it would be based on longevity (eventually), and breadth of skill-set. Jordan is pretty unimpeachably more consistent, and at least so far has the superior accolades, but if someone were to put more value on rebounding and passing, I could at least see the case. Lebron also has a solid "less with more" case as he didn't get to spend his prime with Pippen (though of course Wade and Bosh are no slouches).

It will be an interesting argument in 6-8 years when Lebron retires, as he may well enter that Duncan/Kareem category of "elite for 2 decades" which is pretty nuts. Even if we ultimately discount the three years David mentioned where Lebron perhaps underperformed, he may still have 17 unimpeachable years or whatever when all is said and done, while Jordan has about 12-14.

I've got Jordan, but I can at least see the case for Lebron.

I also, for the record (and as an aside, this thread doesn't need to become another pantheon debate) disagree slightly that none of the post-Jordan guys are at his level, as I'd take Duncan by a hair, mostly due to longevity and defensive impact (obviously Jordan was a tremendous defender as well, but he couldn't protect the rim or control the glass the way a big guy can, and that's probably ultimately more valuable). They're both in my top 4, so it's a negligible difference, but just for the record.

At Wednesday, May 31, 2017 11:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's ridiculous most people hold Jordan much higher than anyone else. James still has a long ways to go before he gets within serious debate range of Kobe or Jordan for me. But, based on combination of skill/athleticism, he's the best player ever on paper. Maybe only Wilt tops him athletically. And maybe top 10 skill-wise ever.

When we break James' career more, he's had a much easier path for titles playing in the East, and still only has 3. Only? I know, 3 is a lot, but for the teams he's had and compared to other all-time greats, it doesn't stack up. He's played with 2 different sets of 2 AS casts(each AS in their primes) coupled with many other quality guys around him. Prior to that, he had the best regular season team in the league for 2 years. Prior to that in 2008, not much he could've done. But, even with a supposedly bad cast in 2007, if he played like his average self in the Finals, CLE would've had a great chance to win. Instead, he was the 3rd best player at best in the Finals.

Duncan wasn't close to elite for 2 decades. I have a hard time seeing someone elite who sits back and lets an undermanned 8 seed beat his stacked 1 seed team in the 1st round. When that stuff happens, you're a long ways from being elite. And that was 2 years after another 1st round loss. And Duncan literally sat back. Many players get bashed for shooting/trying too hard, but at least they're trying. Not that Duncan wasn't necessarily trying 'in his own way,' but he was several years removed from being able to come close to taking over games.

At Thursday, June 01, 2017 7:19:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

In 2007 CLE had one LeBron-The-Beast game which knocked out DET entirely. It was much closer affair than we now remember.
And he only had quite a weak cast up until 2007, after that his teams were quite stacked, not to the point of GSW mind you, but still best in EC. Then he flopped 4 years in row and was blaming his teammates which now seems to have lasting effect in peoples memories, judging from comments.

At Thursday, June 01, 2017 8:42:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

The key is how they guard the best option on each team. The Cavaliers will not waste LBJ on Durant, he's too valuable to their offense. That means they'll have to resort to vastly inferior defenders like Jefferson and Shumpert.

The Warriors OTOH have a bevy of options in Green, Iguodala and Barnes. Green will force LBJ into tough shots like fade aways, allow him to take harmless 20 footers. Iguodala & Barnes will make LBJ work for every inch on the court.


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