- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

Washington Wizards guard Larry Hughes, an unrestricted free agent this offseason, briefly addressed his future before last night’s Eastern Conference semifinal game against the Miami Heat, indicating a desire to remain with the franchise provided a satisfactory deal can be reached.

Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld has said the team intends to re-sign the 26-year-old Hughes, who figures to command a sizable contract following an All-Star caliber season.

“I don’t think that it will be a problem, if everything is what we think it is,” Hughes said. “But you never know. I’m definitely doing what’s best for myself. But I want to keep this winning thing going.”

A six-year veteran who signed with Washington as a free agent in 2002, Hughes enjoyed his finest professional season, earning NBA All-Defensive first-team honors while averaging 22.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and a league-leading 2.89 steals a game.

Hughes helped the Wizards win 20 more games than last season, reach the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons and win their first postseason series since 1982.

“I like the city,” Hughes said. “I like what we’ve started. I like [president of basketball operations] Ernie [Grunfeld], [majority owner Abe] Pollin, everything that’s going on. Everything is geared toward winning. Getting a lot of money to go to a losing situation, I can’t see myself doing that.”

Shaq-less Heat thrive

No Shaquille O’Neal? No problem for the Heat, who shot better than 50 percent from the floor in their first three victories in this series despite the injury-induced limitations — or absence, in Game3 — of their All-Star center.

According to Wizards forward Antawn Jamison, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

“It really doesn’t mean anything,” Jamison said last night as O’Neal sat on the bench for the second straight game. “The only people who benefit from him not playing are our big men. [The Heat] are playing with a lot of confidence without him.

“When Shaq is in the game, they have a comfort zone. But when he’s not in, they have a sense of urgency. I think it’s almost more scary [for us].”

As for Miami’s offensive success, Jamison cited three factors: the slashing, dominant play of guard Dwyane Wade, the Heat’s collection of spot-up shooters and Washington’s pedestrian team defensive rankings during the regular season (No.23 scoring, No.24 field goal percentage).

“It’s penetration,” Jamison said. “They do a great job as far as penetrating and kicking off to the open guy. We got to find a way to keep Wade out of the paint. We’re not a good rotate-and-help team if we have to rotate more than once.”

Just as Miami’s shooters take advantage of the open shots created by opponents’ double-teams of O’Neal, they have exploited Wade’s ability to knife through Washington’s defense seemingly at will.

“[Wade’s] not posting up, but he’s beating us, getting us to sink in and then kicking it out,” Jamison said. “Damon Jones has lived on that this whole season. Same with Eddie Jones. Even [Udonis] Haslem has that jumper from the elbow.”

Peek at the future

Heat center Alonzo Mourning, who once again started for O’Neal, said that forging a 3-0 lead in this series has not been as easy as it might have looked to some.

Mourning sounded a little bit like Michael Jordan did when his Bulls swept the then-Bullets in three games in 1997 as he talked about the future of the Wizards.

“I think they are headed in the right direction with the three guys they have,” Mourning said of Hughes, Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison. “We had a hard time jumping out on them 3-0. It hasn’t been easy. It’s just important that they keep those guys together and then put the right pieces around them. That’s going to be the test for the front office.”

After Jordan’s Bulls beat the Wizards in the first round, Jordan felt the Bullets’ nucleus of Juwan Howard, Chris Webber and Rod Strickland would be regulars in the playoffs. It never happened.

D. Jones finds home

Since entering the NBA in 1998 after playing in the U.S. Basketball League and the Continental and International basketball associations, Miami point guard Damon Jones has played with a different team every year, sometimes two, and eight in all. But now he seems to have found a home. He was the only player to appear in all 82 regular-season games for the Heat.

“I’m just trying to maximize the opportunity,” he said before last night’s game.

By all accounts, he is succeeding with the Heat. After playing with the Milwaukee Bucks last year and signing with the Heat during the summer, Jones moved into the lineup in December. That sent Wade to the off-guard position.

Jones set a franchise record with 225 3-pointers, shooting 43.2 percent (fifth in the league) from 3-point range. He was second on the Heat in assists, fourth in scoring and set a team record for assist-to-turnover ratio.

Despite playing with a badly bruised right heel that forces him to wear a plastic boot off the court, Jones was averaging 15.1 points and 3.3 assists during the playoffs going into last night’s game.

The 6-foot-3 Jones, known for his collection of unusual sunglasses and his supreme self-confidence, left the University of Houston after his junior year but wasn’t drafted. Asked why he was so well-traveled, he said, “You’d have to ask the eight teams I was on why I wasn’t able to stay. But I’m never one to cry over spilt milk. Moving around has only made me a better player, a better person and given me a stronger will and mentality.”

At Dampier’s expense

Shaquille O’Neal said Friday he “felt like Erick Dampier, and that [stinks],” after a reporter asked him how he felt.

Dampier, the Dallas Mavericks center, has been the target of jokes from the participants in this series, partly because teammate Dirk Nowitzki called him out after he was held scoreless in Game1 of their series with the Phoenix Suns. The laughs are also coming because Dampier during the first round proclaimed himself the second-best center in the league behind O’Neal.

Wizards coach Eddie Jordan had a little fun in his pregame talk with the media, asking, “Is Erick Dampier playing tonight?” — an obvious reference to O’Neal.

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