Thursday, March 3, 2005

The Washington Wizards had to be wondering what type of form Larry Hughes would show after missing 20 games with a broken right thumb.

Hughes answered any doubts in stunning form last night in a stirring 101-98 victory over the Houston Rockets before 18,415 at MCI Center. He finished with 31 points — including 20 in the second half — six rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals in 37 minutes.

“That was above and beyond the call of duty — it really was,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “Just to come and play those minutes and to score the points and to make timely shots late in the game, the defense. That was … that’s a classic.”

Hughes’ performance stunned backcourt mate Gilbert Arenas, who had his usual monster game with a game-high 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists.

“I told him I didn’t want to see him come back like Ma$e did and be a flop,” Arenas said, referencing a one-time successful rapper whose comeback after a brief stint as a preacher recently failed. “But he’s been working hard. A lot of players who get injured, it takes them three or four games to get their swagger back. But he came back looking like he didn’t miss a beat. He came back right where he left off.”

Actually, in helping the Wizards (32-24) to just their second win in seven games, he might have come back better.

When Hughes broke his right hand against Phoenix on Jan. 15, he was playing the best basketball of his six-year career, averaging career highs in points (21.2), rebounds (6.1) and assists (5.3) and leading the league in steals (2.82).

Hughes was activated from the injured list a week ago. But before he returned to action, he wanted to make certain the break, which required a pin in his thumb, had healed correctly.

That he played last night was no surprise; both he and the team already had announced he would start. That he played as well as he did, however, came as a surprise to everyone except Hughes.

Asked whether he had expected to play as well as he did, Hughes replied matter of factly, “Yeah. I was telling my teammates and everybody in the organization that I was planning on coming back better than I was in the first part of the season just because of the mental part of the game.

“I stayed with it,” Hughes continued. “I was going to work everybody in and try to get them good shots and make things happen. I planned to come back stronger and more aggressive than I was at the start of the season.”

Perhaps Hughes’ most crucial plays were of the more subtle variety. Specifically, he fed center Brendan Haywood (12 points, nine rebounds) with a pair of assists in the final 2:20.

The first resulted in a layup — on the heels of Hughes’ 3-pointer — that extended the Wizards’ lead to 95-91. The second and more crucial resulted in a Haywood fade-away jumper that put the Wizards up 99-95 with 50.2 seconds to play.

Houston’s Tracy McGrady (26 points, nine rebounds, seven assists) hit a 3-pointer that pulled the Rockets within a point with 6.9 seconds remaining, but Arenas followed with a pair of free throws. McGrady missed a potential tying 3-pointer as time expired.

The Wizards got another solid performance from Kwame Brown, who finished with a game-high 12 rebounds. He has 22 rebounds in the past two games, his only starts of the season, in place of the injured Jared Jeffries (right knee).

The Wizards, who had gone just 9-11 without Hughes, appeared as if they might spoil the guard’s return when they allowed a 17-point second-quarter lead to disappear in the flourish of a 29-11 Houston run.

The Rockets led by as much as 87-79 with a little less than six minutes to play before Arenas and Hughes scored 11 of the Wizards’ next 14 points to give Washington a 93-91 advantage. The Wizards never trailed again.

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