Less than 90 seconds into his return last night, Washington Wizards guard Larry Hughes showed little regard for his recently broken right thumb, elevating to block a shot, which led to a fast break dunk. Thirty seconds later, Hughes caught a pass from teammate Gilbert Arenas and excited an already charged crowd with a one-handed jam -- with his right hand, no less. Welcome back.
A little more than six weeks since he was sidelined, Hughes continued to make big plays and big shots the rest of the night as he scored 31 points to go with 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals to lead the Wizards to a 101-98 victory in front of 18,415 at MCI Center.
Larry Hughes, working his way around Houston center Yao Ming, scores 31 points in his first game back since breaking his finger.
(John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
"It's good to have 'Larry Huge,' as we like to call him, back," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "I never thought he would play at this level after missing [six] weeks. . . . That was above and beyond the call of duty, that really was. To come and play those minutes and score the points and make timely shots late in the game, that was a classic."
Hughes and back-court mate Arenas (33 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists) helped the Wizards (32-24) snap a two-game losing streak and improve to 9-3 at home against Western Conference teams. The Wizards also avenged a 30-point defeat two weeks ago in Houston (33-25).
"I thought he was going to be rusty," said swingman Tracy McGrady, who led six Rockets in double figures with 26 points.
Not Hughes. When asked if this was the performance he expected in his first game back, Hughes said: "Yeah. I was telling my teammates, telling people in the organization, that I plan on coming back better than I was in the first part of the season."
Forward Kwame Brown said he thought the team had lost its swagger as the Wizards went 9-11 without Hughes. "I think it's back," Brown said after grabbing a season-high 12 rebounds in his second start of the season. "We got down in the game and nobody hung their heads."
The Wizards watched a 17-point second half lead turn into an eight-point deficit with 5 minutes 54 seconds left. Not a problem.
The Wizards responded with an 11-2 run over the next two minutes to regain the lead at 90-89.
Former Wizard Juwan Howard answered with a jumper. Again, not a problem. Hughes gave the Wizards the lead for good, when he hit a three-pointer for a 93-91 advantage. Hughes smiled and backpedaled after hitting the shot and later snatched a rebound on the other end.
Although he was in a groove with his shot -- 11-of-20 shooting, despite wearing a protective splint on his thumb -- Hughes was unselfish down the stretch, twice finding Brendan Haywood (12 points, nine rebounds) for clutch buckets.
After Rockets center Yao Ming (11 points, three blocks) hit a free throw to make the score 97-95, Hughes found Haywood just outside the lane, where Haywood hit a turnaround jumper over Yao. Haywood leaned to the side and pranced along the baseline. "I've never seen that in my two years being here, but there it was," Jordan said of Haywood's shot. "Brendan was right; Larry helps him. I'm not going to make fun of Brendan Haywood anymore about that."
McGrady hit a three-pointer that made the score 99-98 with six seconds left. But Arenas sank two free throws and Hughes defended McGrady as his last-second attempt to tie the game hit the back of the rim.
A day after he was fined $7,500 for criticizing the officials following the loss to Sacramento, Arenas made 13 of 16 free throws. "See, that fine paid off," Arenas said.
It also helped that Hughes returned on top of his game. "I told him I don't want to see him come back . . . and be a flop," Arenas said. "He didn't miss a beat."
Said Haywood: "I was sitting over there talking to Jared Jeffries. I was like, 'This is really amazing.' He hasn't played in [six] weeks and for him to come out -- in the NBA -- and dominate the way he did -- phenomenal."
Hughes said it was difficult to watch the team struggle in his absence. "It was tough because I feel like our record would've been better if I had played. We were missing a little bit of that kick, of that edge, when I was out," said Hughes, who broke his thumb while driving against Phoenix's Quentin Richardson on Jan. 15.
"I don't feel like we should lose to anybody. There are games we will be beat in, but I go in with the mind-set of, 'Let's win.' "