When you think about Kobe Bryant‘s greatest individual rivals, the list is pretty short. Ruben Patterson called himself “The Kobe Stopper,” but the Blazers never defeated the Lakers in the playoffs. Tracy McGrady might have been a rival in terms of talent, but his Houston Rockets never competed for championships like Kobe did. And then there was Raja Bell, the pesky defender who got under Kobe’s skin once upon a time. Bell turns 38 today, and we look back at his rivalry with Kobe during the 2006 playoffs.
After a Game 4 victory at Staples Center, the Lakers were up 3-1 in the first round of the 2006 playoffs against the Phoenix Suns and on the verge of sending the second seed in the West to an early playoff exit.
The Suns would rebound and win Game 5 at home in a blowout, but it was this incident in the fourth quarter that dominated the conversation heading into Game 6:
Bell was suspended one game for his clothesline on Kobe, who was asked before Game 6 about the incident. Kobe didn’t mince any words, and said perhaps Bell wasn’t “hugged enough as a kid”:
The Suns would go on to win Game 6 in Los Angeles and Game 7 at home to come back and take the series.
Even though Bell competed on defense, Kobe still finished the series averaging 27.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. He shot 49.7 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from downtown. The Suns also eliminated the Lakers in the first round the following season.
In 2010, Bell was a free agent and actually considered signing with the Lakers.
As part of the recruiting process, Bell and Kobe had dinner together, ready to put their past history behind them. Bell ended up choosing the Utah Jazz.
To this day, he’s still one of the few one-on-one defenders who can claim he defeated Kobe in his prime during the postseason, but those Lakers team didn’t have Shaquille O’Neal or Pau Gasol, stars — of verying levels, since Shaq is an all-timer and Pau is simply an all-star — who could buttress Kobe’s brilliance enough to help him claim five NBA titles so far in his career. Those Lakers featured Smush Parker in the backcourt with Kobe and Chris Mihm at the center spot, while the Suns featured the MVP-level play of Steven Nash. The difference in the supporting casts were the necessary necessary entree’s for Raja to help claim victory in a best-of-seven series against Mamba.
Still, Raja will forever be linked to the one titan of the game he helped shut down when it mattered most.
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