SALT LAKE CITY, March 23 -- Usually soft-spoken and calm, Washington Wizards guard Larry Hughes was noticeably frustrated following his team's 127-98 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. He frowned as he frantically placed a light bulb-sized diamond earring in each ear; his voice cracked loudly with anger as he laced up his shoes and explained the team's mediocre play of late.
The Wizards (36-29) went 9-11 while Hughes sat with a broken right thumb, but they have gone just 5-5 since he returned -- mostly because of injuries that have sidelined all-star forward and third-leading scorer Antawn Jamison (right knee tendinitis), fourth-leading scorer Jarvis Hayes (fractured right patella) and sixth man Juan Dixon (sprained right ankle). But Hughes wasn't willing to use that as an excuse. In his opinion, the Wizards should be playing better.
Larry Hughes is not happy with the style of play the Wizards have been forced into because of injuries.
(Robert A. Reeder - The Washington Post)
"We're not playing our type of basketball, that got us this far. We need to get back to that. That's something that us as the players, that's something that we know," Hughes said. "We're not getting the ball to the basket. We're not shooting a high percentage. We're not getting easy looks."
Hughes blamed the team's struggles on Coach Eddie Jordan's emphasis on initiating the offense from the inside out, with center Brendan Haywood, forward Kwame Brown and reserve Etan Thomas. Haywood was part of the Wizards' up-tempo style in the first half of the season -- when Hughes, Jamison and Gilbert Arenas handled the scoring load -- but the focus has changed some with injuries to the team's top perimeter players and with Brown and Thomas back from injuries.
"We weren't a low post team a while ago. Now we've somehow become a low post team. It's not working," Hughes said, his voice raising. "We won on drives and dishes, that's how we get assists. We get teams moving. Once you throw it down there [in the post], it's not working. Our bigs have come back and we've tried to do things different, [but] I think we can get scores in the paint by driving and dishing."
When told of Hughes's concerns, Jordan replied: "If that's the way he feels, that's the way Larry feels. I'm not going to have a discussion with Larry in the media."
But when he was pressed about the changing focus of the Wizards' offense, Jordan didn't hold back. "Most good teams and most good coaches tweak their offense or they play to strengths of their personnel," he said. "Since we don't have perimeter players -- like we had in Juan and Jarvis and Antawn -- and we have Etan and Kwame back, then wouldn't it be a smart thing to do?"
Whether the Wizards should focus on the post, there is no denying that they haven't moved the ball as well in recent weeks. Wizards' opponents have had more assists in 19 consecutive games. The Wizards are 9-10 in those contests and average just 15.9 assists compared with 25.5 for their opponents. In nine of those games, Wizards opponents have had 10 or more assists (the Nuggets had 22 more assists).
"I think there are times when we try a little bit too hard individually, and I've said that before. I think that gets us in some bad situations, where we turn the ball over," Jordan said. "When you don't have the perimeter scoring on the floor, you're either going to take a lot of outside shots from our guards and when you don't have the driving lanes or the passing lanes to finish, something else happens and it's not there."
The Wizards' turnovers have gone up slightly in the past 19 games -- 14.7 compared with 14 in the first 46 games. They are 11-3 this season when they have more assists than their opponents, 4-2 when they have the same number and 21-24 when they have fewer assists.
As the Wizards prepare to face the Utah Jazz on Thursday night, Brown said the team can't rely on one or two players to find success the rest of the season.
"Without Antawn and his jumper, we have to move the ball and trust a little more," Brown said. "With Antawn out, guys are starting to play tight. We can't second-guess ourselves. We can't play tight."
But the players weren't looking to point fingers. "I don't think it's a matter of being selfish or anything like that. If you drop a few games like that, you try to overanalyze things that are going on. It's the same thing that happened when we won," Thomas said. "I don't think we have to start panicking about the way we play. I don't think our guys are selfish . . . but that's my opinion."
Hughes said the Wizards cannot take a passive approach to the final 17 games. "We have to run," he said. "We have to be aggressive. We have to be on the attack. We have to do it for 48 minutes and when we do that, that's when we get teams on their heels. It's hard to attack when you come to a standstill."