Their digs at each other were more subtle this time.
More like a sneaky tug on the back of an opponent’s shirt instead of an elbow or clothesline hit to the head.
On the night of Raja Bell’s redemption in a huge Suns blowout win, neither Bell nor Kobe Bryant had reason to bring out the heavy verbal artillery afterward.
“We have bigger fish to fry,” Bell said when asked about his mind-set in going against Bryant after being suspended for his flagrant foul on Bryant two games earlier.
Bell’s comment was a retort to Bryant’s pre-series proclamation that he had “bigger fish to fry” than Raja Bell.
Bell’s mother also gave him a public hug, in front of cameras, after the game “to make sure everybody knows I get hugged at home,” Bell said.
This was in response to Bryant needling Bell after Bell had called him a “pompous, arrogant individual.”
“Maybe he didn’t get hugged enough as a kid,” Bryant had replied.
For his part, Bryant — asked about Bell’s defense in a game in which Bryant took only 16 shots (a stunning three in the second half), wasn’t about to credit his nemesis.
“It’s funny,” Bryant said, “But I don’t think about him defensively. I really don’t. It’s not like when you go up against Bruce Bowen or Ron Artest. They make you think about what you’re doing out there.
“(Against Bell), it’s not like that.”
Bryant’s decision to refrain from shooting in the second half, as the Suns raced to leads as big as 33 points, was the subject of postgame head scratching.
“I can’t really give you a reason,” Bell said.
“It was a little strange,” Steve Nash said.
TNT broadcast analyst Charles Barkley was much harsher.
Barkley called Bryant “very selfish,” theorizing that, “I think he stopped shooting so he could say, ‘Those guys didn’t help me,’ because normally if they were down by 20 points he would try to keep shooting. He was not aggressive at all.”
But coach Phil Jackson, who has spent years encouraging Bryant to be more selfless, wasn’t about to criticize his superstar for going the other way.
“He could have served up a 50-point game, but that wouldn’t have won the ballgame,” the Lakers coach said.
“It had to be a team effect. I trust his judgment,” Jackson said, believing that Bryant would have tried to take over had the Lakers mounted a challenge.
Bryant said, “If we were going to get back in this game, we had to have everybody contributing.”
There seemed only one tense moment between Bell and Bryant, when Bryant drew an offensive foul for elbowing Bell in the head.
“It’s nothing that hadn’t happened through the series,” Bell said. “It’s a done deal. We’re moving on.”
Bell reiterated that in being suspended for Game 6, won by the Suns in dramatic fashion in overtime, “I made a mistake. Fortunately, my teammates bailed me out.
“I would have been really hurt if we’d lost the series. To be able to redeem it was special . . . I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”
He also expressed appreciation for this enthusiastic backing by fans, some of whom were carrying photos of Bell (a few containing clothes pins).
“It meant the world to me to have people having my back like that. I could feel it . . . The crowd was amazing . . . It bolstered me. It was what I needed.”