<
>

Reading Raja: Bad ribs, food, and basketball

12/27/2006 - Raja Bell Phoenix Suns

Editor's note: Phoenix Suns guard Raja Bell will maintain a journal for ESPN.com throughout the season as the Suns make a run at the championship. Previous entries: October 24 | November 3

Nov. 30: Bad ribs, food, and basketball: A slow start picks up

Heard any good jokes about my team lately?

That stuff had been floating around. Kinda like the flu. But maybe the critics came out a bit too early.

When we stumbled to a 1-5 start, everyone was declaring our demise. But really, we were just looking for some chemistry -- and looking for our identity. With some key additions to our rotation -- Amare Stoudemire, Jalen Rose, Marcus Banks -- we didn't have it early on, but we're finding it.

Basically, we're a better team, particularly defensively, when we keep the tempo high. It's just the way we play. If we aren't energetic defensively and we don't push the ball, share the ball, and get into our transition game, then we're in trouble.

Defensively, we really needed to pick it up. Our defense often gets knocked, but I think that helps us. We have to play defense with a chip on our shoulder. That has to be our defensive identity. We must play every possession like it's our last, like we have something to prove.

Some say our rough start had to do with personnel, which is partly true, because it doesn't have anything to do with one person. There probably wasn't one player who was playing to his full capability. Nobody was exempt. Coach was blunt about that and, luckily, we have players that are professionals and took that to heart.

After the Mavs game, Coach said we were "soft as cupcakes." Soft can be interpreted in a number of ways, like lack of size. But we are who we are. None of us is thinking that an added piece, like a big man, is the solution. I think he meant we were soft because of our tendency to let teams back in ballgames when we have leads. We weren't tough enough to close teams out. There's a mental toughness about the game that allows you to play 48 minutes at a high level. We've proven we can do that for 24 minutes, or three quarters, but we're searching for that other level. We still struggle with that.

At one point, coach mentioned that "serious changes" might be made. Now, a coach's job is to motivate a team. I'm not in the war room with the coaches, but it seems that he used it as a motivation tool, and I can tell you he got everyone's attention.

Our slow start can also be attributed to conditioning, I'm sure. I know I wasn't where I wanted to be, condition-wise. Playing overseas, we didn't get as much work done as you normally would, flying halfway across the world and practicing once a day at times, as opposed to two-a-days. But those were the cards we were dealt.

Personally, it was the game against San Antonio where I felt I was finally getting in shape. Then, I injured my ribs. Great timing. Basically, I was having a good game, hitting some 3s and putting up 20 points. Then I went to the line with one tick left, made a free throw to tie the game, before missing the FT that would have won it. Then, I took a fall in overtime and separated some cartilage in my ribs. I make that free throw, and I don't get injured. What can you do? As a competitor, you want to have the ball in your hands to win the game. I can't wait to get into the same situation and shoot those free throws again.

Anyway, being injured is something new to me. My ribs were slower to heal than I thought, but after missing a couple of games and wearing some rib protectors, my ribs are good now.

Winning seven of eight

In my mind, we have been playing well for a while now, bringing the energy, even in some of those losses. It was just a matter of getting a break, and we finally got one against Golden State when Steve hit a 3 to win the game. That wasn't the start of the turnaround, in my mind, but it cemented it.

Personally, I've been improving. I don't know that anything clicked. I just kept fighting until my stroke started feeling better. I always say that you shoot shots when you get them. Some go in, some don't, but you have to shoot 'em.
Ironically, it was my old coach with the Jazz (who we played and lost to), Jerry Sloan, who was the first coach to show confidence in my shooting ability, telling me that he wouldn't pull me if I missed. Of course, there are different levels of shooting. I'm sure Jerry didn't want me shooting 10 3-pointers in a game, as I do now sometimes. But the coaching staff here is fantastic about keeping me positive and telling me never to turn down a shot. You need to hear that, as a player. It's good to know that if you miss nine 3s, they want you shooting the 10th.

Anyway, as the team got better, I got better. My play is a result of better collective basketball.

I'm not the only one to see the fruits of that. I think Amare has progressed very nicely. If you ask him, he'll say there's more work to be done, but he's probably further along then we expected him to be, so we're really excited about where he is right now.

Then, life -- or, more to the point, my dinner -- threw me a curveball. I've been sick the last couple of days, in and out of the hospital for some IV love (Yes, I really dig needles.) It was just some bad food, but I won't say whose.

I can only tell you it wasn't Thanksgiving dinner. That was good stuff. Originally, Cindy and I really didn't have plans to do anything. But then, the night before Thanksgiving, I came out of the locker room after our win against the Hornets and thought we'd be kinda lonely with no family coming into town. So we decided to catch a red-eye to NY to spend Thanksgiving Day with Cindy's family. Then, we took a flight out that night so that I could get ready for the game the next night against the Nets. It was a lot of traveling for one day, but we beat the Nets and we spent time with the fam, so it worked out nice.

Of course, my team isn't out of the woods yet. On Wednesday night against Houston, we played very well for a half, went up 17 at halftime, then we came out flat in the third quarter. Houston is a very good team, a team to really look out for this season, and they took the lead from us, but we battled back to win the game. Sure, we didn't put that nail in the coffin, but we showed some resiliency. Some toughness. We don't like giving those leads away, but it's good to know that we can bounce back to win a game.

And, it seems, to turn around a season.

Raja's mailbag

Lindsay (Providence, Utah): Raja, you were by far my favorite Jazz player a few years ago because you backed down from no one. That being said, who do you believe is the toughest, not necessarily the best, but the toughest player that you have gone up against?

Raja: Yao Ming. Then Shaq. Some slight matchup problems there. No, it's really anybody who gets free reign on the court, with the ball in their hands every time down. They're looking to attack every chance they get, so that's hard to defend consistently. Basically, that covers Carmelo, Lebron, Kobe, Dwyane Wade.

Arka (NY): Hey Raja. Congrats on last year! Specifically, good job on Kobe. The Kobe haters across the country loved it. My question: How does the Run 'n Gun style manifest itself in Suns practice? I read something about 7-second shot clocks during scrimmage.

Raja: In practice, the :07 shot clock is our key learning tool. We don't do it every day. That would basically mean we're running wind sprints -- which, as you might imagine, are loads of fun. But there are times that Coach hooks up the clock. It reiterates how to come down the court and take the first good look you get. We basically practice the way we play, with occasional stops for instructions.

Incidentally, there's a book out now called "Seven Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench with the Runnin' and Gunnin' Phoenix Suns," by Jack McCallum. I haven't read it. I wouldn't read anything Jack wrote. No, just kidding. I haven't had a chance to look at it yet, but Jack was cool, so I'm sure he was fair.

Alex (Los Angeles): Raj, love your game. How do you like Phoenix as a town? I've never seen more beautiful women in my life then when I was in Phoenix. Why has this kept a secret?. Great b-ball question, huh? Please win a title this year.

Raja: Alex, it's time to let the secret out. I'll tell you what, Phoenix is an awesome town. It's a mix between L.A. and East Coast vibes, so there's a lot of stuff happening. Especially for a guy like me. I like good weather, shopping, and golf, and that's what we have here. Also, there are some great dining options. If you like Mexican food, you're set. And there's also some good seafood. I don't know where they fly it in from, and I'm not asking. As for the nightlife, I'm a homebody. The house is my favorite hot spot.

Wait, get your head out of the gutter. I'm talking, of course, about my TV.

Got a comment or question for Raja Bell? E-mail him here.