- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

When Larry Hughes’ right thumb ballooned to the size of a small pickle after he broke it against Phoenix two weeks ago, Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan knew immediately there was no way he was going to replace the league leader in steals and perhaps the team’s most complete all-around player.

So he turned to Plan B.

“I just wanted the guys to keep playing to their strong points and to just do what they all do best,” Jordan recalled. “Things start adding up when you take that approach.”

While no one is matching Hughes’ 21.2-point scoring average (though Juan Dixon’s 20.0 over his last six games isn’t too shabby) and no one is collecting Hughes’ 2.82 steals, others with lower profiles than the Big Three of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Hughes are making significant contributions for the 26-15 Wizards.

“I think everybody here is very comfortable in their role, no matter what it is, and it shows,” Dixon said. “The guys we need to be physical are doing that, guys that need to defend are doing that and everyone is happy doing it because we are still winning.”

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has come up bigger in Hughes’ absence than Dixon. After missing two games with the flu, Dixon returned in Wednesday’s 117-107 win over Philadelphia to score 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter.

In his last six starts, Dixon has shot 57 percent from the field and has been most lethal when the Wizards are staging one of their seemingly patented comebacks.

“It’s an opportunity,” the former Maryland star said. “Coach is giving me an opportunity to play major minutes, so while I’m out there I have to make stuff happen. I’m not always looking for my shot. I have to make smart plays, smart decisions. And when my shot is there, I have to knock it down.”

Dixon started in the Wizards’ first game without Hughes, a 101-73 loss to San Antonio. Jordan then realized no matter how well Dixon was going to do offensively, the team was better with him coming off the bench — the role he has embraced all season.

Meanwhile, Jarvis Hayes scored a career-high 27 points against the Spurs. That prompted Jordan to start Hayes alongside Arenas in the backcourt.

“That restored Juan to the bench and put him back in his comfort zone,” Jordan said. “Juan knows he has the green light to take his shot when it’s there. It also allows Gilbert to dominate the ball and be on the point and make decisions. I want him to feel comfortable doing that.”

But while Dixon’s contributions are obvious, others have made more subtle contributions. Take, for instance, Jared Jeffries. Though the Wizards are 11-0 when the 6-foot-11 third-year man scores in double figures, he is most valuable defending the opponent’s best frontcourt player.

This was the case even before Hughes went down as Jeffries got the assignment of guarding Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett earlier this month in a 117-114 victory that was part of the Wizards’ seven-game winning streak. Jeffries changed Garnett’s potential game-tying baseline jumper and since has had the tough assignment of defending Jermaine O’Neal, Toronto’s Chris Bosh and others who potentially could present a problem along the frontline.

“He’s long, and he’s a solid defender,” Jordan said. “He’s getting a lot better as a defender, and his offense is coming to him easier.

Jordan has declared center Brendan Haywood the most improved player on the roster for most of the season — although he might alter this evaluation in light of Arenas’ recent play. Haywood collected four blocks against the Pacers — including a huge late-game rejection on O’Neal — to go along with his 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Two days later in a 106-97 win over Cleveland that saw the Wizards score 76 points in the second half, Haywood got the best of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland’s 7-foot-3 center, to help the Wizards avenge a 105-74 drubbing.

“Jared and Brendan have been unsung heroes in a sense,” Jordan said. “Jared especially. He has created a lot of things for us defensively. He helps offensively with drives to the basket. Those are the little things that I look at. Little things are big things.”

When the Wizards signed Michael Ruffin and Anthony Peeler, Jordan and president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld wanted them to be more than just window dressing. Both have responded.

Most recently against Philadelphia’s smallish but rough lineup, Ruffin, hardly a threat to score, notched a season-high seven points and grabbed five rebounds.

Peeler scored 14 points on 5-for-5 shooting against Cleveland and played terrific defense on wunderkind LeBron James in the fourth quarter. Two nights earlier, Peeler scored 16 points against the Pacers. In those two games he was 7-for-9 from behind the 3-point line.

“I didn’t come here to just be a cheerleader,” said Peeler. “I came here because I felt that we had a chance to win.”

With Hughes on the mend for at least the next two weeks and with others stepping up the way they have lately, the Wizards do.

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