- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

Everyone connected with the Washington Wizards was delighted to welcome back Larry Hughes for Wednesday night’s game against Houston after he missed seven weeks and 20 games with a broken right thumb.

Of course, no one expected Hughes to pick up where he left off in his career season. It takes time for an athlete to erase the rust accumulated during such a layoff. If Hughes could merely contribute a basket or two here, an assist or two there …

But almost unbelievably, Hughes played as if he never had missed a game. He had 31 points (20 in the second half), six rebounds, four assists and two steals in 37 minutes as the Wizards defeated the Rockets 101-98.

So much for theory.

Hughes’ stunning comeback still had everyone buzzing after practice yesterday. In fact, some of his teammates talked about Hughes in almost messianic terms as they prepared for tonight’s game against Golden State at MCI Center.

“It’s much easier to work a player back in if he is playing at the level Larry is,” coach Eddie Jordan said. “But it can be a struggle to get a guy involved if he’s having a hard time getting his legs under him. What Larry did — that was just incredible. That and how the team responded to him.”

Having Hughes back helps the Wizards in several ways. His return, as well as forward Kwame Brown’s recent activation from the injured list, gives the Wizards the starting lineup — with Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood — Jordan envisioned in preseason. And it couldn’t come at a better time for the slumping Wizards (32-24), who have won only two of their last seven games.

Teammates say Hughes’ presence gives the Wizards a certain swagger — specifically at the defensive end, where they have had problems. When Hughes went down Jan. 15, he was the league leader in steals (2.82 a game).

All-Star forward Jamison and reserve forward Michael Ruffin are the only members of the team to appear in all 56 games, and Jamison’s streak of 384 consecutive games is the longest active run in the league. But Jamison, averaging just less than 21 points, has struggled recently. In his last three games, Jamison made just 15 of 48 shots and averaged 13 points. Yesterday, he conceded he is tired and needs to regain his focus.

“This is more mental than physical,” he said. “Normally I don’t let it affect me, but lately it has.”

Jamison said Hughes helps create shots for other players who weren’t there during the games he missed. He added that having Brown’s burly 265 pounds back also was a huge relief

“Having his body back there to help with the load helps a great deal,” Jamison said.

The Wizards should continue to get better over the next few days — good news considering 10 of their remaining 14 games this month are on the road.

Jared Jeffries, who has started at power forward most of the season, has missed several recent games with a deep thigh bruise. However, Jeffries looked good in extended practice yesterday, and Jordan said he should be back soon.

Guard Juan Dixon (sprained ankle) could play as soon as tomorrow, when he will be eligible to come of the injured list. However, small forward Jarvis Hayes’ return is uncertain because of tendinitis in his right knee.

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