- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

While other players on other teams were preparing for the playoffs about this time each year, Larry Hughes used to close his eyes and think about all the exotic places — an island in the South Pacific, the Caribbean, anywhere — he would visit when the regular season ended.

And he hated every minute of it because it was more of a concession than a fantasy.

“I was just thinking last night how many years at this point I’ve pretty much been thinking about shutting it down and getting ready for the summertime,” said Hughes, the Wizards’ second-leading scorer (21.9). “But right now it’s different for me. I’m getting focused and preparing myself to play all the way to the end. It’s different because I haven’t experienced that in a long time.”

It has been almost six years since Hughes appeared in the playoffs as a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers, which makes it understandable that he might think it is his lot to miss out on the postseason.

However, that sense of depravation looks like it is about to end for Hughes and his Washington Wizards teammates. Though they will play the first of five games in seven days against Western Conference teams tonight against surging Denver (35-30), the Wizards begin the trip knowing that if the playoffs began today they would have homecourt advantage against a Cleveland team that just fired its coach and has lost nine of its last 12 games.

While the Wizards have struggled in recent weeks, winning just six of their last 15 games, the team’s hot start has helped it maintain the fourth seed.

Just five games separated the six teams still in contention for the final homecourt spot heading into last night, but all of them seem to have more issues than the Wizards (36-28).

The Cavaliers, despite LeBron James, must get used to playing for an interim coach. They pretty much quit on Paul Silas before he was fired yesterday.

Indiana, already minus the services of Ron Artest (suspension), must finish the regular season without its best player, the injured Jermaine O’Neal.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, might have been swindled by Sacramento, which traded Chris Webber and his achy knees to the 76ers. And Orlando, which recently fired coach Johnny Davis, has seen its star player, Steve Francis, suspended for kicking a cameraman.

The Wizards have their list of aches and pains — Antawn Jamison’s knee tendinitis being the most significant — but they should get a little healthier in the coming days. Jamison will be eligible to come off the injured list when the Wizards play at Seattle on Sunday, and Kwame Brown, who has missed the team’s last two games with the flu, appears to be healthy.

As a result, it is inevitable that the “P” word is being actively tossed about by the Wizards, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 1997.

“We’re thinking playoffs because right now we’re the fourth seed,” Hughes said. “We haven’t been playing well, but the teams under us haven’t either, so it kind of evens things out.”

Even coach Eddie Jordan said talk of the postseason has become inevitable.

“We mention playoffs off and on, especially when they don’t want to practice hard,” Jordan cracked. “But you can’t avoid it now. It is one of our goals. Has been all year. And now we want to get the homecourt, too. We’ve put ourselves in position to get it, so why not?”

The Wizards have performed remarkably well at home against Western Conference teams this season, going 11-4 at MCI Center. However, they have struggled not only on the road against Western Conference teams (3-7) but on the road in general (12-19).

On the flipside, they are 4-1 this season against the five teams they will face over the next week.

“We’re pretty confident,” Gilbert Arenas said. “We’ve won enough games, and we trust each other. We’re a little banged up right now, but the guys that we do have are playing hard. That’s what’s most important.”

Note — Reserve guard Anthony Peeler will not make the trip because of a knee injury.

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