- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

CLEVELAND — It was the Larry Hughes the Cleveland Cavaliers expected — and the one they have been waiting for since he came to the banks of Lake Erie in 2005.

Hughes made the plays that carried the Cavaliers over the Washington Wizards in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. The guard scored a team-high 27 points, slashing to the basket and making jumpers to ensure LeBron James’ sprained ankle wouldn’t slow the team.

“He has definitely helped our team tremendously and is the reason we are playing at such a high level now,” James said. “He has definitely been playing great basketball this season, especially the last two or three months. [In Game 1], he showed his scoring mentality and got into the comfort zone and made some shots late in the shot clock and some and-ones with some contact.”

Hughes followed up his Game 1 heroics with an effective performance in Game 2 win with 19 points, eight rebounds and five assists.

It hasn’t always been that way.

The 6-foot-5 guard left Washington after the 2004-05 season to sign a five-year deal with the Cavaliers worth as much as $70 million. The $12 to $14 million (with incentives) a season was considered excessive by some, considering Hughes was not a superstar. The Cavaliers projected him to be James’ top sidekick and a key ingredient to turning the perennial losers into a championship contender.

Hughes hardly lived up to the lofty contract his first season, missing 45 games with a fractured finger in his shooting hand. He didn’t return until April 2 and was not an impact player in the playoffs.

“It wasn’t a great time for me,” said Hughes, who averaged 22.0 points in his final season with the Wizards and was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive first team. “I just wanted to be out there with my teammates and try to do anything I could to support them. This time, I feel like I have a hand in what we do and how far we go. I am prepared for that and just happy to be healthy.”

The physical pain of the season hardly compared to the news he received in the playoffs last year. After Cleveland eliminated Washington in the first round and were down 2-0 to Detroit, Hughes’ 20-year-old brother, Justin, died from a heart ailment.

Hughes left the Cavaliers to attend to his family and missed the next three games of the series.

And now, finally, Hughes may be living up to his potential and steep price tag.

“What has been explained over the last couple of days how Larry’s life was last year, his injuries and his personal loss,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “That is hard. It is hard to overcome. Injuries by itself, a personal loss by itself is tough to overcome when you are playing in a public arena like this and people rely on you when you make so much money. And now you see the real Larry.”

This season also started in a difficult manner. Hughes missed 10 games after suffering a high ankle sprain two weeks into the season but has been a steady contributor since.

The 28-year-old averaged 14.9 points in the regular season. But in the last 10 games of the regular season, he averaged 16.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists. It is no coincidence the Cavaliers surged to a 50-win season by winning 17 of their final 24.

“I think it just came at the right time,” he said.

Hughes is feeling especially comfortable these days after switching from shooting guard to point guard late in the season after starting point guard Daniel Gibson got hurt. The rookie missed eight games with a toe sprain and Hughes — who previously played point guard for short in-game stretches when Gibson was not on the floor — took over as full-time playmaker.

“We’re bigger,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said after moving Hughes and inserting 6-7 Sasha Pavlovic as shooting guard with the 6-2 Gibson out. “We are a little more athletic. We have more versatility among the perimeter players. Larry is a scorer. Sasha is scorer. LeBron is a scorer. They can shoot 3s and take it off the dribble. It makes us a little more versatile offensively.”

Hughes, who played some point guard in college, immediately took to his new role and enjoys running the team and having the ball in his hands.

“Early in the season, I was the off-guard. I still wanted to make plays, but a lot of times I would get the ball late in the shot clock where there is only a couple things you can do,” he said. “I think in the overall picture, it helps me get my job done better on this particular team, just having the ball early and having the ability to make plays early in the shot clock, setting things up for other guys and not having to press on both ends of the court.”

The Cavaliers hope the switch improves their chances of winning an Eastern Conference title. If the seedings hold, second-seeded Cleveland will meet the No. 1 Detroit Pistons for the conference championship.

“He hasn’t changed as a player,” James said. “He is just more comfortable as a point guard because he has more leeway with the ball at least 85 percent of the time. He definitely is more comfortable and has the luxury of knowing he can shoot any time he wants to. He has a scoring mentality. And that is very tough when you are guarding a point guard.”

And that is why Cleveland general manager Danny Ferry made such an investment in him. The Cavaliers are definitely LeBron’s team, but a healthy Hughes will complement him.

“I definitely understand when I play well, I give this team a great chance of winning,” Hughes said. “I have to be confident and focused to play well every night.”

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