Kurt Helin

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Stephen Curry tops NBA jersey sales, as expected; Kristaps Porzingis fourth

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I attended a friend’s 50th wedding anniversary party last weekend and had multiple versions of the same conversation: When people asked and found out I was an NBA writer I often got some variation of this response, “Oh, I don’t watch the NBA anymore. Well, except sometimes Stephen Curry, I like him.”

While that’s anecdotal, the numbers back the concept up — Curry remains the league’s most popular player. By a healthy margin, when you factor in casual fans. He may be the most popular crossover star the league has had since Michael Jordan, or at last Shaquille O’Neal. He’s more popular with casual fans than LeBron James ever was, because Curry is human-sized, an underdog, and just plain relatable.

It should be no shock Curry leads the league in jersey sales.

Kobe Bryant second and LeBron third are too be expected, these guys are massive international brands with huge fan bases (and LeBron is still an elite NBA player on a contending team).

The big surprise is Kristaps Porzingis is fourth. Knicks fans see him as the franchise savior and are buying up his jerseys in preparation for the celebration they hope will come. Well, once the team gets a coach. And some more talent. But let’s not digress.

Here’s a look at the best-selling jerseys by position in the league.

Luol Deng has bruised wrist, officially questionable for Game 6

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With Hassan Whiteside still out — and he is listed out for Miami’s win-or-go-golfing Game 6 Friday — the Heat could use the defense of Luol Deng. While he has struggled on offense, shooting just 35.9 percent, he’s still a decent defender and part of most their best lineups (he’s +13 this series).

The Heat may be without him for Game 6.

No fracture is good news (there were fears it was) and means it is possible he plays; it’s a matter of pain tolerance and effectiveness. If he’s not going to be able to his left hand, he may be more of a liability than an asset. That said, he’s a better option than Amar’e Stoudemire (who has been a disaster this series).

Game 6 preview: Is Oklahoma City’s future now?

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The potential implications are obvious: Kevin Durant’s expected flirtation with other teams in free agency is predicated on him wanting to be someplace where he contends for a title. If the Thunder off the Spurs and advance to the Western Conference Finals, how can you call them anything but a contender? And if so, why leave?

Thursday night’s Game 6 against San Antonio may not be the biggest game in Thunder franchise history — they have been to the Finals, remember — but it’s in the top handful. It’s not as simple as “win and Durant will stay as a free agent,” but it will impact his decision making.

Thursday night’s Game 6 in Oklahoma City is going to be the Thunder’s best chance to close out the series — they do not want to head back to San Antonio for a Game 7. During the past few games, the style of play has favored Oklahoma City — things the Spurs need to solve or their 67-win season will end in the second round.

At the top of the list is an improved Thunder defense under coach Billy Donovan. In the first game of this series a disinterested Thunder team was carved up by the Spurs passing and player movement, but in each successive game the Thunder defense has gotten better and better. The Thunder have limited the Spurs transition points, and in the half court are showing attention to detail and a focus we have not seen from them up to this point.

For an example, watch Russell Westbrook last game, as pointed out by the fantastic Mike Prada on Twitter.

“Really, it was a game for us where I think both teams had a hard time consistently getting into any kind of offensive rhythm because I felt both teams’ defenses were playing at a pretty high level,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said at his postgame press conference.

The Thunder’s focused defense (you can hear them call out Spurs plays), combined with their athleticism, has forced Kawhi Leonard into more and more isolation, has bothered LaMarcus Aldridge, has forced Tony Parker to become a scorer rather than a distributor, and has disrupted the ball movement of the Spurs. For OKC to move on, that must continue (and conversely, the Spurs need to get the ball movement back to win).

Second on the list, there is the Steven Adams/Enes Kanter front line. The Thunder have gone big with this combination for 34 minutes in the last two games and are +31 when they do. With those two on the court, the Thunder have dominated the glass, particularly the offensive glass, which has slowed the Spurs desire to get out in transition. This combination should kill the offensive spacing of the Thunder, but they have made it work, while on the other end it has clogged the lane on defense, disrupting the Spurs attack. San Antonio has not been able to exploit the pair’s lack of foot speed. The Adams/Kanter combination has been key in turning around the Thunder’s penchant for terrible fourth quarters — in Game 4 the Spurs scored just 16 fourth quarter points, in Game 5 they shot 6-of-21. That will not get it done.

Finally, don’t forget the Thunder have Westbrook and Kevin Durant. There are only a handful of players walking the face of the earth capable of just taking over any NBA game and changing the outcome — the Thunder have two of them. In the last four games of this series, Durant is averaging 29.5 points on 51.8 percent shooting. They combined for 58 points last game and the Thunder offense has understandably clicked when both have been on the court this season. With that improved defense forcing turnovers, the Thunder are getting transition looks and both of these men — particularly Westbrook — are nearly unstoppable in the open court.

The Spurs are too good and too proud to go quietly into that good night — they will rage, they will make plays, they will defend better, they are not going to let the light die on their season. The Thunder are going to have to put it out. They have figured out how, but closing out a quality veteran team is the final test, the final proof that the Thunder are contenders.

We will see Thursday night if they can pass that test.

We will see if the Thunder’s future is now.

Watch Stephen Curry, Klay Thompsons’ big nights (VIDEO)

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Portland made its case in the NBA playoffs for having the second best backcourt in the NBA. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were fantastic.

But they are second best.

Klay Thompson led the Warriors offense for three quarters and finished the night with 33 points.

Then Stephen Curry took over with 14 in the fourth (29 for the game), and it was ballgame — the Warriors win and advance.

Damian Lillard, Portland once again show heart, but it’s not enough as Warriors win, advance

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Tip your cap to the Portland Trail Blazers.

We’re talking about a team expected by most (myself included) to win around 25 games after losing LaMarcus Aldridge and three other starters. There was Damian Lillard and… what?

It turned out the “what” was C.J. McCollum, great role players such as Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee, and Ed Davis, all orchestrated masterfully by Terry Stotts. This is a team that played with heart, passion, and a belief in itself that carried it to 44 wins and the second round of the NBA playoffs.

It was just not enough against Golden State.

As they have all season Portland put up a fight until the end, but 33 points from Klay Thompson and 29 from Stephen Curry — including 14 in the fourth quarter — was too much and Golden State won 125-121.

The Warriors win the series 4-1 and will wait for the winner of the Oklahoma City/San Antonio series. That series will start either Monday (if the Thunder close it out in Game 6) or next Wednesday.

The Warriors could use that time off to get healthy. In addition to Curry coming off a knee injury, Draymond Green tweaked his ankle in Game 5 (it had to be retaped, but he did return), while Andrew Bogut suffered a right adductor strain and left Game 5 not to return. Now those players will have at least five days to get right.

The Warriors earned that right with the win, but it was not easy.

Whether it was some tired legs, remaining rust, or the Blazers’ switching an aggressive big onto him off the pick-and-roll, Curry was just 3-of-9 shooting for seven points in the first half. It was Thompson carrying the Warriors early, he had 17 first half points on 7-of-8 shooting.

Damian Lillard had 21 first half points, and the Blazers led the entire second quarter, and the Blazers were up five at the half.

Then in the third quarter Thompson brought the Warriors closer, scoring 16 points in the quarter and the Warriors made it a game.

By this time Curry had shaken off his rust and was putting the Blazers bigs that switch on him on skates, which was rough for Ed Davis.

The Blazers would not go quietly, they made a 7-0 run at one point in the fourth, then not long later had a 7-2 run. But none of it was enough once the Warriors got Curry going (14 in the fourth) and the ball started flying around as it does.

For both teams, this was a series to build off of.

For the Blazers, it showed them as a team on the rise with the right chemistry and stars that can thrive under pressure. Get a rim protecting big this summer and some wing defensive help, plus just another year of maturity for their young players, and watch out.

For the Warriors, it’s they were challenged and responded like champions. It felt like a playoff series. It was a nice warmup for the next round, which will be a more difficult test (regardless of which team they face).