- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

One of the ruthless ironies of professional sports is that a player’s true value to a team sometimes can best be determined by his absence.

Case in point: The Washington Wizards.

The two games they have played since Larry Hughes broke his right thumb Saturday have resulted in lopsided defeats.

On Monday, their first game without their second-leading scorer, the Wizards struggled against the Spurs’ suffocating defense, which limited them to a season-low 73 points.

One night later, the Wizards showed up at Dallas hoping to shake off that loss against a Dallas team that likes to run — the Wizards’ forte. But the results were disastrous. While the Wizards came alive to score 80 points in the second half, defensively they were horrible. The Mavericks had four players score 25 points or more and finished with an NBA season-high 137 points in a 17-point victory.

“It’s hard,” said Washington guard Juan Dixon, who has started both games in place of Hughes. “After this game, you realize how much you really miss Larry Hughes. He’s a huge part of this team this year, and we need him back bad.

“I’m trying to fill his role. We need guys to come off the bench with a lot of energy. He’s not here right now, so guys have to do their part. It is an opportunity for a lot of guys to step up.”

This is just a part of the quandary facing the Wizards, who are suddenly adrift and taking on the appearance of a dazed and confused fighter with Hughes out for four-to-six weeks.

Meanwhile, Washington (22-15), off to its best start since the 1978-79 season, has at least given itself some breathing room. It built confidence with wins over Minnesota, Seattle and Phoenix during a seven-game winning streak. And as bad as the East appears to be this season, the Wizards don’t have to play at the same torrid pace to remain in the playoff mix if Hughes — averaging 21.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists and a league-leading 2.8 steals — returns on or ahead of schedule.

Still, whereas they once brimmed with confidence as Hughes combined with Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison to form the league’s most lethal offensive trio, the Wizards have looked nothing like the squad that ran off seven straight wins and placed a stranglehold on the hearts of fans in a town starved for a winner.

Arenas rebounded from his 0-for-12 shooting performance against San Antonio on Monday with a career-high 43 points against the Mavericks.

But that didn’t mask his despondency following the loss.

“It’s hard, real hard,” Arenas said as he dressed not far from Dixon. “My right-hand man is out. He’s at the one; I’m at the two. We got so used to playing off each other. But now we’re missing 20 points and the leader of the team.

“But we have to get over it,” Arenas added. “We have to suck it up and come out and play strong and physical. We still are upbeat. But when you get out there you do notice it.”

Exacerbating all of this is the sudden uncertainty surrounding 6-foot-11 power forward Kwame Brown. Brown, who has appeared in just 14 games this season, was advised by his agent, Arn Tellem, to seek a second opinion on his chronically ailing right foot, on which he had offseason surgery after a fracture. While the team was given the day off by Wizards coach Eddie Jordan to recuperate from the back-to-back Texas misstep, Brown visited Los Angeles foot specialist Richard Ferkel.

“This would have been a good opportunity to have a post presence and slow the game up because now you don’t have the three horses that you did,” Brown said. “They all fed off each other.”

Dixon acquitted himself well enough against Dallas, finishing with 19 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals. But with Dixon in the starting lineup, the Wizards must find reserve offensive production from other places. That could begin with Jarvis Hayes.

“He showed what he could do for us the other night,” Jamison said of Hayes, who tallied a career-high 27 points against the Spurs on Monday. “I think Jarvis will step up and make the most of his opportunity. Really, I’m not concerned with the offense. Defense is where we’re going to have to be tougher.”

Take, for instance, the loss to Dallas. The Wizards had no problem putting up 80 second-half points when they went to a smaller, more energetic lineup. But Dallas was pretty much on cruise control in the second half after scoring 70 points and leading by 33 at the break.

The players knew before they went home following the win over Phoenix that Hughes’ thumb was broken, though the news was not made public until the next day. Jamison, usually extremely affable after games, was sullen in victory.

Now that it has settled in, he realizes he and the Wizards must move forward — without Hughes — for now.

“When it happened there was a lot of frustration because we know how much work Larry put into being the player that he is,” Jamison said. “He was a big part of what we were doing and the main reason why we got to the level that we’re at now. Can we withstand it? Yes. But it’s not the same without one of your warriors with you.”

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