CLEVELAND — Larry Hughes spent a few minutes before game time yesterday chatting with a friend and former running mate, injured Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas.
Hughes and Arenas normally specialize in quality trash talk, but the conversation before the playoff opener between the Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers players was a lot less colorful than usual.
“He understands you can’t really talk a lot when you are not playing,” said Hughes, who left the Wizards to join the Cavaliers as a free agent two years ago. “He kept it to a minimum.”
Hughes’ performance on the court, however, spoke loudly indeed. Hughes scored a team-high 27 points, leading the Cavaliers to an easy 97-82 victory over the Wizards in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.
Every time Washington was within striking distance, it seemed Hughes had an answer.
The Wizards held the momentum just before halftime — they had trimmed the Cavaliers’ lead to four — and coach Eddie Jordan called a timeout with 10.8 seconds remaining to set up a play. The worst-case scenario for the Wizards, Jordan figured, was to go into the locker room down 45-41.
But the Wizards coach was mistaken. Jarvis Hayes quickly launched an errant 3-point attempt, giving Hughes enough time to make a 3-pointer of his own before time expired to give the Cavaliers a seven-point cushion at the half.
It was that kind of game for Hughes, who in 2005 signed a five-year deal with the Cavaliers worth between $65 million and $70 million.
“We know how special this game is to Larry,” said LeBron James, who sprained his ankle in the third quarter and watched as his teammate assumed control. “Last year, he came into the playoffs, but he wasn’t the Larry Hughes we know because of that family tragedy [his brother died of a heart ailment] and his finger not being 100 percent. So now the blessing happened that we get to play Washington again.”
Hughes spent much of yesterday afternoon instructing teammates where to be to make defensive stops. The 6-foot-5 Hughes, who recently switched from shooting to point guard, clearly knew the offense better than several current Wizards players who were on the court only because of injuries to All-Stars Caron Butler and Arenas.
“I am able to recognize things and hear certain things that are like secondhand being in that system,” he said. “I am tipping our bigs off. Just making sure everybody knows what is coming. I am relaying it.”
Hughes’ knowledge helped the Cavaliers hold the Wizards to 36.7 percent shooting. In contrast, Hughes made nine of 17 shots and all eight of his free throw attempts while logging nearly 45 minutes. He also grabbed seven rebounds, helping the Cavaliers to a 46-40 advantage on the boards.
However, it was Hughes’ knack for coming up with the right play at the right time that kept the Wizards from making a serious run. The Wizards cut the Cavaliers’ lead to 74-67 at the end of the third quarter, but Hughes answered with a long jumper at the beginning of the fourth to reopen the margin.
He likewise was instrumental in the Cavaliers’ run early in the final quarter that put the Wizards away. After center Zydrunas Ilgauskas made two free throws to give Cleveland a 78-70 lead, Hughes stole an entry pass from Wizards guard Roger Mason and was fouled going in for a layup. Hughes converted both foul shots, then added two more after a foul on another layup try. Those free throws made the score 82-70 and effectively ended any chances of victory for the Wizards.
“He’s pretty good, and he was pretty good for us, setting our defense,” Jordan said. “He understands our play calling. In a sense, he knows our entry passes.”