- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

SEATTLE — This time, there was no bickering, no selfish play. This time, facing a team with the fourth-best record in the NBA, the Washington Wizards banded together to earn a result they needed in a desperate way, a 95-94 victory last night over the Seattle SuperSonics.

And no one stood out more than Larry Hughes, the guard who complained publicly about Washington’s play last week. He crafted a masterpiece of a game, finishing with a game-high 31 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and four steals.

But nothing was bigger than his disruptive play at the end, when Hughes knocked the ball away from Seattle’s Ray Allen and forced Antonio Daniels to take the potential game-winner, a 26-footer that missed badly as time ran out. The victory allowed the Wizards (38-30) to maintain a one game lead over the streaking Chicago Bulls for fourth in the Eastern Conference.

“I like to stop guys. I like to play defense. It was a challenge,” Hughes said.

But Hughes didn’t hang on to the moment too long, recognizing the Wizards, despite their many injuries, haven’t played up to his expectations lately. He said so in a team meeting Sunday.

“We talked about being short-handed and the guys who are going to be on this court and make the run that we’re trying to make,” Hughes said. “We just have to step up and look in the mirror and come out and be better than we’ve been playing. There is no question that we have to play better than we’ve been playing, myself included. We haven’t been playing playoff basketball. We are headed to the playoffs, and we have to start playing playoff basketball right now.”

Playoff basketball often means team basketball, and the Wizards haven’t been acting like much of a team lately. Last week, Hughes, whose broken thumb earlier this season cost him 20 games and probably an All-Star Game appearance, criticized Washington’s decision to run the offense through the post more often. And Brendan Haywood, who went on the injured list with a broken thumb of his own yesterday, had to be separated from Kwame Brown on the bench during Friday night’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Still, the victory last night didn’t reflect any of those troubles. The Wizards improved to 16-13 against the Western Conference this season and guaranteed themselves a winning record against the West for the first time since they went 17-7 in the 1997-98 season. It also gave the Wizards their first season sweep of Seattle (48-21) since 1972-73.

“It’s just a great, great win for us after what this road trip has sent us through,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “We lost Brendan Haywood; we lose a nail-biter with the Clippers, fought like crazy against Utah and started the trip off with a blowout against Denver. But our confidence was never shaken and never lost.”

Playing their first game without Haywood, the Wizards got a decent performance from Etan Thomas, who finished with 15 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots.

Washington’s injury problems — along with Haywood, Jarvis Hayes and Antawn Jamison are on the injured list — may have gotten worse headed into tonight’s game at Portland. Brown reinjured the right ankle that has bothered him all season long.

“Hopefully God will give us our whole team sometime in this lifetime,” said Gilbert Arenas, who finished with 18 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.

While nobody is going to give the Wizards anything, they probably should feel a bit better after playing their best all-around game in some time.

Washington shot 43.9 percent from the field and held the high-scoring Sonics to 39 percent. In addition, the Wizards also showed good ball movement for the first time in weeks. They finished with 23 assists compared to 16 for the Sonics, marking the first time in 21 games they had more assists than their opponents.

Allen led the Sonics with 27 points. Rashard Lewis, Seattle’s other All-Star, finished with 16.

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