We here at Bright Side of the Sun will be kicking off our summertime Throwback Thursday series a bit early as we pay homage to the great Seven Seconds or Less era of the Phoenix Suns in light of the recent retirement of legendary maestro Steve Nash. Join us every Thursday as we count down the top ten moments of high-octane glory from Nash's return to the desert in 2004 to their final playoff run in 2010.
And yes, the Shaquille O'Neal chapter will properly omitted.
Check out the previous installments here:
10. Nash drops 22 dimes on LeBron's Cavs
9. Amar'e destroys Anthony Tolliver
8. Nash and Kidd battle to the death
7. Grant Hill teaches Jerryd Bayless to respect his elders
6. The wonderful weirdness of the Bench Mob
A player that can crawl as deep under the other team's skin as a fungal infection. A player that opposing crowds boo lustfully during road games -- the proverbial "heel" in professional wrestling terminology. A player that is strikingly comfortable operating outside the legal boundaries of basketball.
Flopping, scratching, clawing, even the occasional clothesline or junk punch -- shooting guard Raja Bell embodied this role like few Phoenix Suns players ever have.
It was these attributes that gave Raja a chance in the NBA in the first place. Undrafted out of Florida International, he finally broke into the NBA on a ten-day contract with the 76ers on April 6, 2001. He quickly made a name for himself as a relentless wing defender during the playoffs.
The Sixers pulled off a stunner in game 1 of the 2001 Finals versus the vaunted Lakers, handing Shaq and Kobe their first loss of the playoffs.
Seriously, the Lakers swept the Western Conference that year.
Kobe was harassed into 7-22 shooting in that game, in part due to Raja's defense. This of course led to an infamous rivalry between the two guards, which Kobe handled in typical Kobe fashion: by acting like the whole thing was a joke and then boarding his helicopter and flying off to dump napalm on animal shelters.
Well, the Lakers pretty much mopped up after that and won their second sickening title in and row and good lord am I glad that it isn't the early-2000's anymore -- but Raja Bell had arrived, and after learning how to drill 3's he eventually played his way to a multi-year contract with the Suns as their everyday starter beside Steve Nash in the backcourt.
While he wasn't anything close to the departed Joe Johnson talent-wise, in many ways Raja was a better fit at shooting guard for the 7SOL Suns. What Johnson had -- athleticism, star potential, scoring ability, ego -- the Suns already had in spades. But what Raja had -- toughness, defense, selflessness -- the team desperately needed.
When the Amar'e-less Suns headed into the 2006 playoffs, Raja Bell left a hell of a mark.
First Round, the Lakers
The dreaded Lakers shocked the NBA by building a 3-1 series lead over the Suns on the heels of Kobe's game 4 buzzer-beater.
In game 5, with the Suns leading comfortably, the contemptuous rivalry between Raja and Kobe finally reached a boiling point. Tired of Kobe's wayward elbows, Raja finally clotheslined the pompous Bryant to the floor before calmly stalking the sidelines and, while grinning widely, told Lakers' coach Phil Jackson, "there's your foul."
Kobe brushed his shoulders off and wagged his finger at the Phoenix crowd, because he is a detestable human being. The TV pundits were beside themselves with claims that Raja -- aside from earning himself a suspension for game 6 -- had challenged the competitive spirit of Kobe Bryant and Kobe was surely going to put the Suns away now and blabbity blabbity blah.
What actually happened was the Suns won a classic thriller in game 6 (more on that later in the countdown) before squashing the Lakers and a particularly uninspired Kobe in game 7.
Some people don't like to include the clothesline as a fond memory of the 7SOL Suns. They say that it was a dirty play and it could have cost the Suns the series since it left them short-handed for game 6. They say that if Raja was on another team and did that to a Suns player, we would all being crying foul.
I say yes, all of those statements are absolutely correct.
But I don't care.
First of all, this is the Kobe Bryant that we're talking about (music is NSFW):
Is there anything more cowardly than elbowing a dude in the throat when you think no one is looking? Raja's clothesline might have been a dirty play, but he had no qualms about accepting the consequences. He didn't try to hide it, he didn't complain afterwards, and he took his punishment like a man.
As for the ensuing suspension, that Suns team was the most recent to come back from a 3-1 deficit until the Clippers were shell-shocked by Houston in this season's semifinals. The fact that it came via a shorthanded effort in game 6 only made it even more delicious.
And so it earns a spot on the the Top Ten 7SOL Countdown, because even the most pacifistic among us got a little tingly thrill when it happened (and I think we all remember exactly where we were when it happened).
Second Round, the Clippers
But Raja wasn't done.
The Elton Brand-led Clippers were an imposing foe for the Suns in the semifinals. They had a mammoth frontcourt with Brand and a young Chris Kaman -- two large men who really could throw their weight around. The Suns, on the other hand, started Shawn Marion and Boris Diaw up front.
The Suns' only way to counter their obvious size mismatch was to turn each game into a shootout -- which, to be fair, was how they approached every situation.
The series seesawed back and forth, and was tied at 2-2 in game 5 in Phoenix. The Clippers had a 111-108 lead with 3.6 seconds left and were on the brink of staging an elimination opportunity in game 6 at Staples. Raja, never known for his offensive prowess, demanded the ball and assured his teammates that he was going to tie the game.
With the Suns set to inbound from the side, Raja faked a screen before flaring to the corner. His cover, rookie Daniel Ewing, wasn't fooled and remained securely in Raja's shorts every step of the way before crowding the shot attempt as much as legally possible.
It didn't matter. Raja splashed the jumper and tied the game, and the Suns won in overtime, 125-118.
The Clippers held serve in Los Angeles before suffering a game 7 blowout just as their roommates at Staples did in the previous round. The Suns made an encore trip to the Western Conference Finals against Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs. Unfortunately, Bell suffered a calf injury during the series and the depleted Suns simply ran out of gas.
While the 2006 playoffs were ultimately yet another tale of the Suns coming up just a little short, Raja Bell gave us two unforgettable moments in the span of just two weeks as a consolation prize. His tenure as a Sun ended disappointingly during the moribundTerry Porter years (months), but Suns fans will always have a soft spot for the feisty troublemaker of the Seven Seconds or Less teams.
Raja might not be a Ring of Honor candidate, but I wouldn't be the one to break the news to him.