- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

The wait for Larry Hughes’ return looks to be over for the Washington Wizards.

Hughes, who was having the most complete season of any Wizards player before he broke his right thumb Jan. 15, pronounced himself ready to play in the team’s next game, at home tomorrow against hot Houston.

Hughes said “right now I feel like I’m playing” if there had been a game scheduled for last night.

Hughes hasn’t played since he broke the thumb against Phoenix, the last game in a stretch for which he was named the NBA’s Eastern Conference player of the week.

At the time, the Wizards (31-24) were playing by far their best basketball of the season. Their victory over of the Suns, who had the best record in the NBA, was their seventh straight, a season best, and left them 22-13.

Hughes was in the midst of a career-best season, averaging career highs in points (21.2), rebounds (6.1) and assists (5.3) through 34 games. In addition, he was leading the league in steals (2.82) in the final year of his contract. He will become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

The Wizards struggled without him, especially recently, despite the elevated play of leading scorer Gilbert Arenas (25.5). The Wizards are 9-11 minus Hughes, but five of those losses have come in their last six games. Partly as a result, the Wizards have begun to see the race for playoff spots in the Eastern Conference tightening with 27 games remaining in the season.

Meanwhile, the team announced starters Jared Jeffries (thigh bruise) and Jarvis Hayes (knee tendinitis) both could be out for at least another week.

On a brighter note, the Wizards were pleasantly surprised by the play of Kwame Brown, who made his first start of the season in Sunday’s 110-108 loss to Sacramento, a setback that ended Washington’s five-game home winning streak. Brown, who had been on the injured list from Jan. 12 until last Wednesday with ankle tendinitis, scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in his third game back.

Still, Brown conceded Hughes’ absence has had more of an impact.

“Until we get Larry back I don’t think we have that swagger that we used to have going into games,” said Brown, who will start again tomorrow. “He gives us a confidence where we know we are going to come out and however the game goes we know we’re going to win. He’ll pick up our defense; he’ll be able to pick up Antawn [Jamison] and myself. When he’s back, I think we’ll be a much stronger team.”

Hughes had hoped to play against Sacramento and had been cleared medically by the team to do so. However, Hughes wasn’t satisfied he had tested his broken thumb sufficiently. But after playing five-on-five and banging the thumb around, seeing an X-ray Sunday and having his readiness explained to him by team doctors, Hughes sounded confident he will be available tomorrow.

“I definitely feel like I’m ready now,” said Hughes, who will wear a splint tomorrow. “I don’t have any real pain; I can play hurt. I just wanted to see that the bone was actually healed and not go out at 85 percent. I wasn’t going to chance it.”

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