- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

Now we can see where the Wizards genuinely fit in the NBA’s Eastern Conference following the return of Larry Hughes.

Now we can see if they are made of the material that leads to securing homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

There was no adequate way to evaluate the Wizards during Hughes’ 20-game absence. The Wizards desperately missed his all-around services, and it showed in all too many of the losses.

The Wizards no longer could finish games consistently. They no longer could hold opponents somewhat accountable on defense. They no longer could play in the carefree manner that resulted in a 22-13 record before Hughes fractured his right thumb.

Gilbert Arenas recently objected to reports detailing the team’s number of victories over teams whose leading players were sidelined. Arenas objected because of the Wizards not being whole all season.

Even now, following the jaw-dropping, 31-point return of Hughes in Wednesday night’s 101-98 victory over the Rockets, the Wizards are missing Jared Jeffries, Juan Dixon and Jarvis Hayes — all significant pieces.

Teams inevitably lose players during the 82-game regular season. That is just the way it is. The Wizards, though, always seem to come down with a stronger strain of the injury bug than their opponents, even in this stirring season.

The Wizards endured the absences of Kwame Brown and Etan Thomas for what amounted to half the season. They also withstood the extended absence of Steve Blake, the team’s only genuine point guard, although you hardly could draw that conclusion against the Rockets.

Blake succumbed to an itchy shooting finger against the Rockets, no doubt a fleeting condition but a convenient one that revealed anew the team’s low basketball IQ. Blake took 11 shots and made only two in 23 minutes, while Antawn Jamison, the team’s All-Star forward, was relegated to 10 shots in 42 minutes.

Basketball 101: You never want a streak-shooting backup point guard taking more shots than your All-Star forward, even if the latter has been in a shooting slump.

But that is the Wizards for you. They are not a smart team, at least not yet. They are talented, yes. They are fun to watch, yes. And they rarely phone in a game. But because of their youth, they can drive you to dousing copious amounts of Maalox.

They can go up on a team by 17 points in the third quarter only to find themselves down by eight points in the fourth quarter and in jeopardy of losing the game, as it was against the Rockets.

The Wizards just have no clue on how to hold a lead or close out a team. They don’t seem to recognize that there are a finite number of possessions in a game.

Once in the second half, while dribbling the ball up the floor free of pressure, Blake absent-mindedly flipped a crosscourt pass to Arenas, who was not expecting the ball. Arenas had to hustle to retrieve the ball before it went out of bounds.

Again, this is the Wizards for now. They might throw the ball out of bounds without prompting. Or they might hit a 3-pointer that tears out the heart of an opponent.

They can do the hard stuff, such as score in bunches. Sometimes they just can’t do the easy stuff, such as make free throws in the waning minutes of a tight game.

Sometimes, with this team, there are just no logical explanations. Brendan Haywood, arguably, hit the biggest shot of the game against the Rockets. Let’s be honest: He is the last person you want to see taking a 10-foot turnaround jumper from the right baseline, with the game hanging in the balance.

But he converted the shot, along with two free throws at another pivotal moment. Go figure. Haywood sank a put-back that salvaged a game against the Knicks earlier in the season. He also shot a momentum-killing air ball from the free throw line against the Magic.

Some games he is on the court in body only. Some games he is there in body and spirit.

This is part of who the Wizards are for now.

They are a roller-coaster ride, a 48-minute scream, though an infinitely smoother one with Hughes back on board.

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