LOS ANGELES -- Raja Bell was sitting in a Denny's restaurant in South Dakota two months ago when the Philadelphia 76ers called. He went outside, let out a loud yell and headed for the NBA.
Bell, cut by the San Antonio Spurs the day before the season started, bounced around from the CBA to the IBL before earning the last spot on Philadelphia's playoff roster.
Now the 6-foot-5, 215-pound guard is playing crucial minutes in the NBA Finals.
With the Sixers trailing the Los Angles Lakers by five points in overtime of Game 1, Bell made a scoop shot that cut the deficit to three and sparked a 107-101 victory.
"If this is a dream, I'm not trying to wake up," Bell said. "It's all happened so fast that I haven't taken it all in. I've taken bits and pieces. I'm excited to be here. This is the biggest stage in the world and I'm on it."
Bell signed with Philadelphia on April 6, played 30 minutes in five regular-season games and just 36 minutes in the postseason until Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Milwaukee.
During a blowout loss to the Bucks in which the Sixers cut a 33-point deficit to 10 in the fourth quarter, Bell showed coach Larry Brown enough in 16 minutes to warrant more playing time.
He was the second player off the bench in Game 7 and scored a career-high 10 points, nearly matching his entire playoff output of 11.
"I noticed in shootaround before Game 7 that he was more confident, he was directing plays and it just carried into the game and carried into now," Sixers general manager Billy King said. "He's not caught up in people talking about it or asking questions. He just knows he has an assignment."
Bell played 19 minutes in the opener against Los Angeles on Wednesday, scored six points, grabbed four rebounds and made two steals, including one on Kobe Bryant.
He was part of a trio of guards that held Bryant to just 15 points on 7-for-22 shooting.
"You always have to believe you can. If you don't, you shouldn't be out there," Bell said. "There's no time to get caught up in the moment. I guess when it's all over, I'll look back and say, 'Wow! I was on the same floor against Kobe and Shaq."'
Bell played two seasons at Florida International after spending his first two years at Boston University. He was selected by Yakima in the fourth round of the 1999 CBA draft and made the league's All-Rookie team.
Last August, Bell signed a guaranteed contract with San Antonio, but was cut on Oct. 30. He returned home to Miami, broke his thumb in a pickup game, then missed three months with a stress fracture in his left ankle.
Bell joined the Sioux Falls SkyForce of the IBL on March 31, but the Sixers called before he got a chance to play in a game.
"If I wasn't here right now, I'd be on South Beach," said Bell, who got in shape by playing against his father and other older men in empty gymnasiums three months ago.
Bell probably wouldn't be on the Sixers if reserve guard Pepe Sanchez was eligible for the playoffs. But Sanchez was sent to Atlanta in the trade for Dikembe Mutombo, got released by the Hawks and didn't rejoin the Sixers in time to be on the postseason roster.
"There are guys who were drafted higher and were more heralded, but he wants to be part of the team rather than be a star right away," King said. "That's the approach you have to take. Get to the league, work hard and things will come."
Bell's worth ethic has left an impression on his teammates.
"He's one of the first ones to practice, one of the last ones to leave," league MVP Allen Iverson said. "I'm glad he's getting the chance. He deserved it."
Bell said playing against Iverson in practice has made him a better defender and prepared him for Ray Allen and Bryant.
"I don't think anything makes it easier to guard Kobe, but sticking Allen in practice has definitely improved my defense," Bell said. "He's the premier scorer in the league. He beats me a lot, but just learning some of the techniques I can use against him helps me in other situations. A lot of these guys like Allen, Kobe, Ray Allen are unstoppable. But you can make life hard on them."
In many ways, Bell typifies the Sixers, a team that has overcome adversity, marginal talent and many obstacles to reach the NBA Finals.
"I've been an underdog since my high school days," Bell said. "It's been a tough year because I had generated some interest but had trouble staying healthy. This team is a team you put something in front of it and they tackle it. That's been the story of my career. I've had some ups and downs, been in places I didn't necessarily want to be, but I made the best of it."