When asked if this is the healthiest he’s felt during this injury-plagued season, Raja Bell briefly considered lying.
“I’m reluctant to tell you guys anything because I don’t want to jinx it,” he said.
But Bell didn’t need to say anything. His play on the court of late has done all the talking.
His scoring average is on the rise, his movement on the court is returning to normal and Friday’s statistical line in an easy 115-95 win over Minnesota spoke volumes — Bell had 20 points in 35 minutes and made up for an 0-for-4 night from 3-point range by hitting all nine of his two-pointers, which ranged from step-in jumpers to fast-break layups.
“These are good nights,” said Bell, who is back to playing 40-plus minutes a game without pain in his back or ankles. “Some nights when you have to sit outside and shoot volumes of 3s and you’re really not feeling it — those are the games that get you down a little bit. But when you can substitute the 3s with a lot of good looks from 3-point range, it helps.”
Bell has pushed his scoring average to 11.7 a game over the last six games, averaging 16.5 points on .447 shooting from the field. After reaching the 20-point mark just twice in the first 28 games, he’s now done it twice in the last six games.
Coach Mike D’Antoni said the Bell he saw running the floor effortlessly in the second half shows that one of his key cogs is getting back to normal.
“This is the best he’s been, and he’s going to be better as we go,” D’Antoni said. “He’s a huge key to who we are and it’s great to see him coming out the other side of what’s been a really tough stretch.”
The search for a backup to Steve Nash continued Friday with a new candidate.
Marcus Banks sat for a second straight game while D’Antoni turned to rookie D.J. Strawberry late in the first quarter. Strawberry finished with five points on 1-for-5 shooting, but provided the energy and defensive effort that was anticipated.
“A lot of times you don’t judge a guy because he makes every shot or not, it’s everything in between — the flow, the chemistry and the feel,” D’Antoni said. “He is on every play, he tried to get every offensive rebound … so maybe he will get more time.”
Strawberry said he was told after the Lakers game to be ready to play.
“I thought I did pretty well,” said Strawberry, who had seen only mop-up duty in seven previous appearances. “I came in thinking defense, being vocal and playing hard.”
Strawberry said his eight-game stint in the NBA Developmental League (29.9 points, 7.5 rebounds) raised his confidence and helped him get game-ready. “Just playing and knocking off the rust was huge,” he said. “After standing around and not doing much here for a month and a half, I really needed that.”
GOOD NEWS, GREAT NEWS
Leandro Barbosa emerged from a brief slump with 22 points against the Lakers and continued the surge with 19 points, five rebounds and five assists against Minnesota, making 16 of his 28 shots (57 percent) in the two games.
Barbosa isn’t using it as an excuse, but Suns assistant coach Dan D’Antoni feels Wednesday’s news that Barbosa’s close friend, Denver forward Nene, was found to be cancer-free helped removed a big weight from his shoulders. Barbosa has kept in close contact with his countryman since a testicular tumor was discovered last week, and he was very concerned about the possibilities.
“I asked him if all the stuff with Nene was bothering him, and he said right away, 'Coach, I have to get above that. I have to be better.’ ” Dan D’Antoni said. “But I know better. That’s the kind of person he is.”
Barbosa did say the good news instantly lifted his spirits.
“I’m so happy that it’s not cancer and everything is going to be OK,” Barbosa said. “That’s a scary word, for him and for his friends who care so much for him. It has been very hard for him, we have talked a lot and there has been some hard days. You do not have many close friends, and you want them to be OK. Now he can work on getting better and playing basketball and being happy again.”
• The Timberwolves are now 0-29 this season when their opponent scores 100 points or more. The Suns hit the century mark with 9:24 left in the game.
• The Suns have won 28 of their first 40 games, making this the fourth straight season they have won at least 26 of the first 40. Dallas and San Antonio (if they each win one or more of their next three games) are the only other teams to duplicate that feat.
• Amaré Stoudemire had 23 points and 11 rebounds for his 17th double-double of the season. The Suns are 16-1 in those games.
• The Suns hit 11 3-pointers Friday and now have made at least nine in seven straight games, their longest streak in almost three years (March 23—April 8, 2005).
Did you see that? The Suns have more wins in January (six) than the Timberwolves have all season. This week, Minnesota GM Kevin McHale implored his 5-33 team to work harder. Right back at you, buddy.
Player of the game: Steve Nash was pretty close to perfect. Coming off a 20-assist game in Los Angeles, Nash hit all six of his field goals, all four of his free throws and dished out 13 assists with only one turnover in 29 minutes. He now has 28 double-doubles this season, tied for second in the NBA.
Unsung hero: Raja Bell didn’t have his 3-point radar (0-4), but hit all nine of his shots inside the arc and finished with 20 points and five rebounds. For the first time all season, he is moving freely and putting pressure on enemy defenses.
Thumbs up: After being outrebounded 55-33 in that embarrassing loss in Minnesota (Dec. 8), the Suns held their own on the boards (50-40), allowing them to dominate everywhere else.
Thumbs down: The Suns were playing back-to-back nights and for the third time in four nights. So why did Steve Nash return with eight minutes left, and why were four starters still on the floor with five minutes left and a 28-point lead?