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Wizards' Hughes Set to Return

Comeback Occurs As Others Are Hurt

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; Page D01

All of the Washington Wizards' troubles will not come to an end tomorrow, but at least they will enter their game against the Houston Rockets with more hope after guard Larry Hughes said he will play for the first time since breaking his right thumb on Jan. 15.

"Right now, I feel like I'm playing," Hughes said after practice yesterday. "I definitely feel like I'm ready. The team is missing a little bit. I feel like it's time for me to step in and get it rolling."

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The Wizards (31-24) are in the midst of their most difficult stretch of the season, having lost five of their past six games and encountering a plague of injuries that has wiped out some key complementary pieces -- Jared Jeffries, Juan Dixon and possibly Jarvis Hayes -- for at least a week.

Hughes, who was activated from the injured list last week, has been watching the collapse from the sideline. In a desire to get back on the floor, Hughes requested an X-ray before the Wizards lost, 110-108, to the Sacramento Kings at MCI Center on Sunday to get some assurance that his thumb healed completely.

"I wasn't going to chance it if the bone wasn't healed. I did want to play against a good Western Conference team to get the ball rolling, but we have another one on Wednesday," said Hughes, who plans to wear a protective splint on his shooting hand.

Hughes was averaging 21.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.3 assists and a league-leading 2.82 steals before attempting to drive on Phoenix's Quentin Richardson in the final minutes of a 108-103 win. "I felt for him. I felt like he would've been an all-star," said Richardson, who works out with Hughes in Chicago during the summer and shares the same agent.

The Wizards have been a mediocre team without Hughes, going 9-11. "I don't think we have that swagger like we used to have; going into the games with confidence, knowing that however the game turns out, we're going to win," said forward Kwame Brown, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds in his first start of the season against the Kings.

Even with Hughes's return, the Wizards have several problems to address. They have become overly reliant on point guard Gilbert Arenas bailing them out in the fourth quarter. And, while they have had several defensive lapses in the fourth quarter of their past two losses, the Wizards have also failed to score more than 100 points in seven of their past eight games.

"During the course of the season, things go well for you, then they don't. The biggest difference is: How do you get out of that funk?" said forward Antawn Jamison, who has shot just 10 of 38 (26.3 percent) in the past two games.

Since Hughes's injury, the Wizards have brought back Brown from a right foot injury but they have lost more players. Dixon sprained his right ankle against the Rockets before the all-star break; Jeffries suffered swelling in his right knee after a collision in Chicago and missed his first start in 48 games; Hayes, who started the past 18 games in place of Hughes, sat out the Kings game because of tendinitis in his right knee.

Dixon is expected to be activated from the injured list before the Wizards play in Charlotte on Saturday, while Jeffries is expected to be out "at least a week," Coach Eddie Jordan said. Hayes didn't practice Monday and walked with a noticeable limp as he left MCI Center. "It'll probably be a game-time decision," he said.

"I hope we can get everyone on the same page, have everyone healthy in the month of March and going into April and we'll have a good solid team with some depth. And that's what we were missing -- depth," Jordan said.

With Hughes back, the Wizards are hopeful that they will at least have that swagger again. "It's a confidence that I've grown up with, as far as knowing that everybody puts their pants on the same way," Hughes said. "With that, never tell me that we're going to lose. I always feel that we're going to win."

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