Reading Raja: Poker, napping and the streak

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: Oct. 24 | Nov. 3 | Nov. 30

A tight team, winning poker and a good nap

Do you want to win 15 games in a row?

Here's the secret (sorta): Poker and napping. It's cool, I'll get to that.

In the span of a few weeks, we went from being the league's most talked-about disappointment to being talked about for an entirely different reason: 15 straight wins.

I don't know that I've ever won 15 straight, but it's been really cool to turn our season around the way we did after that slow start. That said, I don't think any of us were worrying about the streak or breaking any records, like those comparisons to the Lakers' record of 33 straight. I don't think any of us bought into that. But here's the bottom line: We're playing pretty good basketball right now. We've got a little bit of our swagger back.

We knew coming into this season that we were going to be a good team. And we were disappointed with the start, but we went right back into the gym and back to work. We could have hung our heads and given up on the year and bought into the chemistry debate, but we care about each other.

It always helps when you're friends. You can work with people you don't like, but it's a whole other level to care about the guy next to you and not want to let him down. I've been around the league for a while, and I can tell you it's rare that a team is so tight.

So yeah, we've bonded, and part of the reason for that is the long road trip we just completed. You always bond with your team on the road because you're with those guys every day. They become your second family. A lot of the guys have been under the weather, and there's been a lot of back-to-backs. So instead of getting out and doing Christmas shopping (note to self: go shop), you're bonding.

And playing poker. That's our team's primary pastime. We had a day off in Charlotte, and we went pretty hard there. And the games are good and even. Our best poker players are probably Eddie Johnson, Shawn Marion and Kevin Tucker, but anybody can win at any time. Trust me. I know because, recently, I've been that "anybody." This road trip has been a good run for me as far as poker goes. Last night, actually, was my turn to win. I can't tell you how much I take home -- that's confidential info -- but I've been told I have a good poker face.

I'm also a really good napper, which is something else I try to do on the road. Naps are big for me. I always get one on game days and, on the road, you get 'em when you can get 'em. Like I said, a lot of guys have been under the weather, so they've been napping too.

A few good wins, a trip home and the road ahead

Since I last wrote to you, our first win came against the Bucks, when we overcame a 37-point outing from Michael Redd. Of course, I was matched up quite a bit with Redd. What can you do? He drops 37 on a lot of teams. He's one of the best scorers in the league.

Someone just told me we have some sort of "home domination" over the Bucks. Apparently, we've beaten them 19 times in a row in Phoenix. That doesn't mean anything. It's ridiculous to get caught up in the past. It's not like we're expecting to win because we've beat them X number of games in a certain building.

Then we beat Sacramento by 20 something. It was good to see Brad Miller again after our preseason incident when I plowed through one of his screens. Just like I told you all I would, I apologized to him before the game and he said he was cool with it. Done deal.

Then we played one of the wildest games in recent history: A 161-157 victory over the Nets. I don't think any of us had played in a game like that. I got to watch two of the best point guards in the league go head to head, which was pretty special to watch. I did all right, hitting 6-of-7 on 3s. Sure, it felt good, but the law of averages caught up with me the next night when I went 1-for-6. Some nights you're hot, some you're not.

After two more road wins (over Boston and Charlotte), we beat a pretty good team in Orlando. Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire are two very good young players playing the same position, so a lot of eyes were on that matchup. Amare took that challenge to heart and we brought a concerted team effort to push Howard out of his comfort zone, limiting him to four points and three rebounds, eventually forcing him to foul out.

From there, it was a hop-skip to my hometown of Miami for a Heat game, where I scored a couple of tickets for some fam and friends. It's always good to play in front of the home crowd, but the beauty of it is they don't care how you do. Always good times.

Anyway, I was happy to be home. My mom's a teacher at an elementary school, so I stopped by and said "What's up?" to some of the kids. I got to watch my sister Tombi referee a high school girls game. She's always watching me, so that was pretty awesome. She used to coach at the University of Miami, but coaching wasn't really for her. My dad used to ref for a long time, so he critiqued her a little bit. And she did a good job. She has aspirations to ref at a higher level. It'd be cool to have her ref one of my games. Maybe I'll get a little bit of tolerance, if you know what I'm saying.

Oh, and the game? It just so happened that D-Wade and Shaq didn't play, but they still brought the effort, so it was a good win for us before returning home.

The holiday spirit: Giving back and playing in the snow

We followed that with a very interesting road trip to Denver to play the Nuggets -- or so we hoped. The game was postponed on account of a snowstorm that shut down the airport, leaving us, like so many other travelers, stranded in Denver for a few days. I've played in a lot of places, but this is the first time in the NBA that I've been stranded.

To be honest, it was cool, kind of like a slumber party. To pass the time, we played more poker (of course) and did what most of you would probably do: We played in the snow. NBA players aren't really allowed to do any boarding or skiing -- not sure if it's in the language in our contracts, but we can't do anything that can get us injured.

So while we weren't tearing up the slopes, we did manage to get into a snowball fight.
I was among the first ones out of practice one day, so we ambushed the other guys with snowballs as they came out of the facility. We were pretty brutal, so it didn't last too long. My teammates basically ran for cover. What can I say? It seemed like the right thing to do. Personally, I'm pretty proud of my performance. I'm from Miami and play in Phoenix, so I wouldn't profess to being a great snowballer, but I held my own.

Anyway, we got out of Denver without ever playing the Nuggets. Too bad, because I would've liked to have faced A.I. in that powder blue. Regardless, I'm happy for Allen. I respect him as much as any guy in the league, and if he was tired of being in Philly, then it's a good move for him. Of course, that also makes Denver very explosive. I wouldn't say we're more concerned with them, but they'll be a dangerous team.

Anyway, after a three-hour bus ride to Colorado Springs and a five-hour travel day, we had to play the Wizards in Phoenix. That's when it finally happened: We lost a game and had our win streak snapped. The cards were stacked against us that night, but I can't blame it on fatigue. The Wizards played well and Gilbert Arenas has been lights-out. He's tough, a really good player, a great scorer, and he was on that night. In fact, he's been on for a while now. We'll be ready next time.

Then, we participated in some cool holiday events. Every year, our team Christmas party doubles as a charity event for the kids. They come to the arena and we spend some quality time with them -- we get to play with them, eat and hand out some gifts. It's always a good experience for them and definitely for us.

Then, Saturday night, I had 50 kids from the Boys and Girls Club down to the zoo for an event called Zoo Lights, where they light up the zoo at night. That was a cool experience. Cindy and I ate some dogs and burgers with them, and we gave them some gifts. We've always wanted to do something like that, and I thank the Suns for helping me set that up.

On Christmas Eve, Cindy and I got together with some teammates and exchanged gifts. The Suns don't have a Secret Santa scenario like some teams, but Boris Diaw always gets everyone the same gift: French pastries. I think that's pretty funny, but they're really good.

On Thursday, we'll play the Mavericks in Dallas on national TV. It should be a good test. We're feeling pretty good about ourselves, but we're not all the way there yet. We can improve pretty much everywhere. Our defense, obviously, gets a lot of heat, but we give up a lot of points because of the way we play offensively. If we score 115 points, we won't be able to keep teams to 100. But we can improve the timing of our defense down the stretch.

Some people say our bench is underperforming with the absence of Eddie House and Tim Thomas, but I don't agree. It's just taking some time for us to jell. Maybe coach Mike D'Antoni has tightened the rotation a bit, as evidenced by Jalen Rose getting a few DNPs and whatnot. True, Steve Nash is playing the most minutes of his career, but Stevie will be fine. He works hard in his off time to prepare. We don't expect anything less from Stevie. Anyway, we have bench guys who are very capable down the stretch, and let's just say I'm happy I don't have to do it.

Raja's mailbag

Matt (New York):
Raja, you have some experience with NBA tussles. What are your thoughts on the brawl between my Knicks and the Nuggets? Do you think the suspended players got off easy, or were they unfairly scrutinized because they play in the NBA? Seems like in other leagues, players get off scot-free.

Raja: I saw the fight, but I wasn't involved in the events leading up to it, so I can't speculate too much. I'll say this: It's interesting when NHL players are praised for being great fighters, but in the NBA, we're "criminals" and "thugs." It's a shame, but what are we going to do? That's society. There are deeper issues in play. We just have to be aware of that.

Candice (Chicago):
I really have liked you since 2001 when you were with the 76ers, and my question is what is the difference between playing with Nash and A.I.?

Raja: Surprisingly, they have a lot of similarities. They're both warriors, competitors who leave it all on the court every night. The difference is that Steve is a set-the-table kind of guy, and Allen is a scorer from that position. They both excel at what they do, and it's really amazing that I had a chance to play with both of them and watch and learn from them. They're the two point guards who define, in their own ways, the position as it is today.

They're also great guys. Don't believe the hype: A.I. was loved in Philly. Next to Rocky Balboa, he was Philly. He's a blue-collar, hardworking guy, and he fights for every inch. And that's what Philly is about. He was a great poster child for Philly.

Scott (Calabasas, Calif.):
Yo Raja, great job this season. You're shooting the lights out. It's almost movie awards season here in SoCal, so have you caught anything you'd recommend?

Raja: Yeah, I'm a big movie buff, but I've been weak lately because of all the travel, and the Denver theaters were closed because of the storm. I saw "Blood Diamond," and that was really good. It made me want to give up my diamonds, but I love my diamonds, so I'll keep 'em. But I definitely won't buy any more. I also really want to see "We Are Marshall." I read an article about it, and found out Coach D'Antoni was a player on the Marshall basketball team at the time of the plane crash and our assistant coach, Dan D'Antoni, was close to that situation, and I didn't know that. I'm definitely going to check that out.

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