It's a 'New Day' for Hughes, but a Bad One for Wizards

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 23, 2007

CLEVELAND, April 22 -- A Cleveland Cavaliers fan and a security guard at Quicken Loans Arena engaged in a heated conversation before Game 1 of the Cavaliers' first-round series with the Washington Wizards.

"Every game we lost this season is because of one man -- Larry Hughes!" the fan shouted.

The security guard, arms folded behind his back, nodded in agreement and hummed, as if listening to a sermon.

"We pay that man too much money to be giving us what he gives us," the fan continued. For one game at least, Hughes put such talk to rest, because he was largely responsible for the Cavaliers' first win this postseason.

Hughes's stat line -- 27 points, 7 rebounds and 2 steals -- doesn't do justice to how much he hurt his former team during the Wizards' 97-82 loss Sunday afternoon. He took over the game offensively with superstar LeBron James (23 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists) slowed by a sprained left ankle and general apathy. Hughes was seemingly everywhere, making momentum-killing plays and haunting the Wizards with his familiarity with Coach Eddie Jordan's playbook.

"It's coming, definitely coming, where you can expect these kind of games out of me," said Hughes, whose play has improved since a switch to point guard last March. "You just have to be patient, until it's your time to come through."

When the Cavaliers appeared to be headed toward just a four-point halftime lead against the injury-riddled Wizards, Hughes sprinted downcourt, got his feet square just behind the three-point line and buried a shot as time expired, sending his team to the locker room with a 48-41 lead.

When the Wizards -- without all-stars Gilbert Arenas (knee surgery) and Caron Butler (broken hand) -- kept hanging around in the third quarter, Hughes converted a three-point play after getting fouled while finishing a fast break with his left hand. He later handed out his only assist of the game to forward Drew Gooden on the next possession to give the Cavaliers an 11-point lead.

But most important, Hughes helped the Cavaliers on the defensive end. The Wizards shot just 36.7 percent and Hughes kept his teammates prepared for what was coming. "We know everything they use. You change the names, it's basically the same," Hughes said.

Hughes chuckled after the game as he shared a story about how he shouted out a play as Wizards point guard Antonio Daniels dribbled up the court. Daniels, perplexed, looked to the Wizards' bench, hoping for Jordan to call another play. "I have fun playing those guys," Hughes said. "It's not anything heated. It's no animosity for me leaving. It's all fun. Nothing personal."

Hughes arguably had his best playoff performance since scoring 33 points in Game 5 of the Wizards' first-round series against the Chicago Bulls in 2005. It was the type of show the Cavaliers -- and perhaps that angry fan -- expected from Hughes when he bolted Washington that summer to sign a five-year, $60 million contract with the team. (The contract could be worth up to $70 million with easily attainable incentives; Hughes got a $2 million bonus this season because Cleveland won at least 49 games.)

Hughes was mostly a nonfactor during the Cavaliers' six-game series victory over Washington last season. He averaged just 12.3 points, shot 31.3 percent and his only contributions were scoring 24 points in Cleveland's overtime win in Game 5 and assisting Damon Jones on the game-winning jumper that clinched the series. "It's a new day," Hughes said. "A lot of things went on last year. It's a new day."

Hughes had not recovered from a broken hand that limited him to just 36 games last season and it was later revealed that he was playing through a difficult time emotionally. His younger brother, Justin, was battling a serious heart ailment and later died during the Cavaliers' second-round series against Detroit.

"We know how special this game is to Larry," James said. "Last year, he came back in the playoffs but he wasn't the Larry Hughes that we know, and I know because of the tragedy with his family and his finger not being 100 percent. So it's a blessing that we got to play Washington again. He's 100 percent healthy and his mind is clear and just focused on basketball."

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