- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

While the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James and the Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas continued to play “Can You Top This?” during their playoff series, an old friend of the Wizards reappeared Wednesday night and into Thursday morning.

It’s not that Larry Hughes had completely vanished. He played the previous four games for the Cavaliers and registered some occasional quality time. But Hughes, who returned in April from a 45-game absence because of a broken right middle finger, wasn’t the same player who started the season. Nor was he the same Hughes who teamed with Arenas to give the Wizards a potent backcourt the two previous seasons before signing with Cleveland as an unrestricted free agent. He averaged 10.3 points and shot 32 percent in the first four playoff games.

His ballhandling and shooting were rusty. But even as Hughes was rounding into shape, he remained an afterthought in the Cleveland offense, which is constructed by, for and around James. That same offense did pretty well without Hughes for much of the year. Even Arenas, with whom Hughes remains close, took note of the situation.

“He knows me,” Hughes said before Game 5. “It’s not hard to see. But at the same time, we have a good team here and everyone has to play their role in order for us to win.”

That was Hughes being, as he says, “a good teammate.” He won’t rock the boat, certainly not with so much at stake. But he has asked management for a sit-down after the season to discuss his role. Then he showed why it ought to be expanded.

James, in another epic performance, had 45 points, including the winning basket with 0.9 seconds left in overtime as the Cavaliers beat the Wizards 121-120. Arenas, for his part, had 44 points, and the pair ranks 1-2 in scoring in the entire playoffs. But the victory would have not have happened without Hughes, who scored 24 points.

“My number was called early on, and often, and I kind of made plays,” Hughes said after the victory, which gave Cleveland a 3-2 lead as the series shifts to Verizon Center tonight for Game 6. “I didn’t shoot the ball every time, but at the same time I tried to be aggressive and not let things go to waste. You want to get something good on every possession.”

The 6-foot-5 guard played nearly 48 minutes on Wednesday. That was more than any of his teammates, even James. With James on the bench with four fouls for nearly seven minutes, Hughes helped his team come from one point down to lead by four at the end of the third quarter.

“He’s our main guy,” Hughes said of James. “But at the same time, we have guys standing in the wings waiting to contribute and make plays. We don’t want him on the bench with fouls, but if that’s the way it happens, we have to continue to make plays.”

Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said before the game that no conscious effort had been made to stifle Hughes. Rather, “It’s the flow of the game for him,” Brown said. “It’s the flow of the game for me, too. We try to get him in the mix. It’s just the timing. We won 50 games this year and we won 50 games by playing a certain way, for the most part. When he was playing, we played a certain way and then we had to make adjustments. We played pretty good basketball. But he’s a big part of what we’re gonna do now, what our future’s gonna be.”

Said Cavaliers guard Eric Snow; “You miss 45 games, it’s tough to come back and be the same person you were before. And he’s guarding Gilbert Arenas. He’s playing as hard as he can. What else can you ask for?”

Hughes isn’t the only one guarding Arenas, or at least trying to. He is supposed to get help. But he does have the main responsibility, and the experience has been interesting. Hughes made the NBA all-defensive team last year and defense remains his first priority, but Arenas this series has played on an elite level.

“You can’t stop him every time,” Hughes said. “You definitely need your teammates to help you contain him at the basket. You can only cut off one or two things. He’s a talented guy. You cut off the first option, he’ll go to the second one. You cut off the second one, he’ll go to the third or maybe back to the first one.”

After the game Arenas ventured into the Cleveland locker room to congratulate Hughes. A piece of the Wizards remains with Hughes, and so do several articles of clothing. He wore blue Wizards practice shorts under his game shorts. He also has a black pair.

“I have nothing against those guys,” he said. “They make for great underwear.”

Hughes, who this week earned the Cavaliers’ first Austin Carr Good Guy Award for his cooperation with the media and work in the community, says he wanted to remain a Wizard. He emphasizes that he never pitted the two teams against each other in a bidding war. All last season, Washington president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said re-signing Hughes was the “No. 1 priority.” Hughes said, “I was thinking I was gonna get a phone call [from Grunfeld] and I didn’t get a phone call.”

When he did, it was too late; Hughes already took Cleveland’s offer of $62 million for five years. “It was definitely tough” to leave, Hughes said. “It was something I didn’t plan on doing. But circumstances were what they were. I’m happy to deal with those circumstances and just have the opportunity to play basketball. It’s pretty much a blessing for me.”

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