- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Injured point guard Gilbert Arenas plans to return to the Washington Wizards on Tuesday against the Atlanta Hawks, and he said he doesn’t expect a setback similar to the one that aborted his comeback earlier this month.

“The injury is healed,” Arenas said yesterday of the severely strained abdomen that forced him to miss 12 of the Wizards’ last 13 games.

Arenas, however, admitted that he still feels pain when he “sneezes.” But he also said he doesn’t think the injury, which he suffered on Nov.23 at Seattle, inhibits him from doing the things he’s used to doing on the court.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan was not happy when Arenas tried to come back Dec.12 against the Minnesota Timberwolves only to aggravate the injury. But when the Tuesday return date was mentioned yesterday, Jordan agreed it would be a good time for the team’s leading scorer to return.

“That’s reasonable,” said Jordan, adding that a final determination would be made by team doctors. “As much as we’d like to have him on the floor — we need his talents, his competitiveness — we want to have him be the real Gilbert and not 65percent, 75percent or even 85percent Gilbert.

” I know he probably won’t be 100percent with precision, cutting and execution, but we want him to feel good on the floor. We don’t want anything to happen to him because he’s not recovered as far as he can recover. We want him at the highest level.”

Arenas leads the Wizards in scoring (20.0), assists (5.4) and steals (2.0). With him the Wizards are 5-9. They are 3-9 since he was injured, including his aborted comeback attempt against Minnesota. Arenas winced through most of that game and finished with just nine points, five turnovers and four assists.

“I still don’t think I rushed back too soon,” he said. “I just needed to see where I was and what I could do at that point. I wanted to see if I could just play like that and be OK. But after the game I was sore. I didn’t want to feel like that the rest of the season so I stopped playing. I could have kept going, but I just don’t want to feel sore when I stop playing.”

The Wizards are in desperate need of Arenas. They still don’t know when injured Jerry Stackhouse (knee) is going to make his regular-season debut. Mid-January appears to be an optimistic estimate.

Despite their shoddy record (8-18), the Wizards still could become a playoff team if things begin to turn around quickly — mostly because they play in the awful Atlantic Division.

Sixteen of their 26 games have been on the road. This will change beginning with tomorrow’s home game against Miami. Washington plays 15 of its next 22 games at MCI Center.

“We’re looking at this month coming up, with all the home games, and it could be good for us,” Arenas said. “But we have to start now. If you look at our schedule it should start to get easier for us soon.”

So much so that Arenas still believes the Wizards might reach the playoffs, which is what he predicted earlier this season.

“Oh, yeah. Most definitely,” Arenas said. “But I’m not worried about that right now. We’ve got to start winning some games before we think about that.”

Note — Larry Hughes did not practice because of tendinitis in his right knee. He is expected to play tomorrow.

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