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The best? Go West, young man

The NBA Finals officially won't start until at least early June. But is there really any doubt that the Los Angeles-Portland series ultimately will decide the championship?

Most insiders are looking at the Western Conference final as the definitive series. After all, it pits the league's top teams. The Lakers were 67-15 and the Blazers 59-23 during the regular season.

"Everybody has been talking about this series forever," Lakers star Kobe Bryant said. "Now it's here."

Whichever team comes out of the East will be a serious underdog. Miami and New York had solid seasons, but neither seemed particularly dominant. Plus, Miami is hobbling with star guard Tim Hardaway nursing a sore left foot. And the Knicks aren't playing like they did last season when they went to the final.

Indiana, which beat the Lakers 111-102 during the regular season, is the only East squad that might provide a worthy matchup. But the Pacers have struggled during the post-season and were nearly bounced in the first round by Milwaukee.

In other words, pay close attention to the Lakers-Blazers series because it might be better than what comes next.

HAZARD PAY: Word is, St. John's coach Mike Jarvis will see his salary more than quadruple when he becomes the Wizards' new coach. Jarvis makes $700,000 a year but will get a five-year, $15-million deal from Washington.

But as bad as the Wizards were this season, Jarvis will be underpaid.

THE WEDDING SINGER: A hot topic surrounding the Portland-Los Angeles series is Bryant's marriage plans. The 21-year-old star confirmed last week that he has popped the question. But to whom?

Bryant had been linked to singer/actor Brandy. They attended the prom together.

But Bryant's fiance apparently isn't anyone famous, but rather an 18-year-old high school senior from Huntington Beach, Calif.

"She's not a movie star, she's my star," Bryant told the Los Angeles Daily News.

A wedding date hasn't been set, but it's supposed to take place after next month's final.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: From Knicks guard Charlie Ward, brushing off the airport runway incident last week in which an engine thrust from the team plane blew coach Jeff Van Gundy's car into several teammates' cars, causing minor damage:

"That's why the Lord has blessed us with insurance."

DID YOU KNOW?: Construction on a new Basketball Hall of Fame, built in the shape of a basketball, is scheduled to begin in July in Springfield, Mass. The $32.7-million facility will be twice the size of the current one and part of a complex that includes retail stores and restaurants.

ARE YOU BUYING THAT?: Did you hear the snow job Bryant tried to do on the Blazers before the series began Saturday? Asked about the Lakers' chances, Bryant basically said his team has no chance.

"As far as athletically, everybody knows they're better than we are. They have better players too. Physically we can't match up with them, they're bigger than we are."

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.