Washington Wizards point guard Tyronn Lue has been called upon to direct the offense in critical situations often since returning from a shoulder injury two games ago, but Coach Doug Collins said Larry Hughes will remain the starter.

But both Lue and Hughes will receive significant playing time as the Wizards cling to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 16 games remaining. Since returning, Lue has come off the bench to play an average of 7.5 more minutes per game than Hughes.

"We're going to stay with what we've got," Collins said after yesterday's practice at MCI Center. "Tyronn has been running the offense really efficiently and that gives me the option to play Larry at some different spots. . . . T-Lue and Larry are both going to get a lot of minutes. I don't want to get into who's going to be starting and who's not because that's going to lead to controversy. And we don't need any of that."

Indeed, the Wizards cannot afford any distractions with East-leading Detroit in town tonight and a six-game western road trip beginning in Phoenix on Friday. Washington (32-34) holds a half-game edge on Milwaukee (32-35), but the Wizards have won a mere nine games on the road this season.

"We're not a team that has a margin for error," Collins said. "Especially with the teams we're playing."

Washington played perhaps its best basketball of the season during a nine-game stretch in February with Lue, a natural point guard, starting ahead of Hughes, who had been sent to the bench just before the all-star game. The Wizards went 5-4 and defeated New Jersey and Indiana. But Lue separated his left (non-shooting) shoulder diving for a loose ball in the fourth quarter of the victory over Houston on Feb. 27. Lue (7.9 points per game and three assists) missed the next six games, and was replaced by Hughes (13 points, 3.2 assists and 5 rebounds).

"It doesn't matter to me," Lue shrugged, asked if he wanted to return to the starting role. "I just want to help this team win. I'm just concerned about getting into the playoffs."

Lue yesterday compared the Wizards' playoff run with the expected war in Iraq. "We also have a war we have to fight, too," he said. "The Washington Wizards are trying to make the playoffs.. . . . It's pretty much the same thing."

Lue came off the bench on Saturday to help the Wizards to an 89-82 victory over Miami, but said yesterday that his shoulder is not fully recovered.

"When it gets loose, it's okay," Lue said. "But I'm still shying away from contact. I'm just trying to get my timing and conditioning back. Hopefully I can get back to playing the way I did before I got hurt. . . . I probably would have taken a little more time [to recover], but we're trying to make the playoffs."

Hughes said: "I'm just going to go with it. We're not even thinking about who's starting right now. We're just trying to win games."

Forward Jerry Stackhouse said the Wizards are more effective when Lue and Hughes split time at the point, playing when the situation suits their individual strengths.

"T-Lue can get the ball up the court and give the other team's point guard problems with his defense," Stackhouse said. "Larry is a little more of a threat [to score], but T-Lue can get us into our set a little better. The situation and who we're playing has a lot to do with it."

Still, the most important thing for the Wizards over the next 13 days -- a span that includes games against the Pistons, and then on the road against the Suns, Golden State, Portland, Seattle, the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver -- is to hang on to that playoff spot. Collins still feels the Wizards must win 41 games to get into the playoffs.

"We can't go out there thinking we've only won two of our last 12 road games," Collins said. "[But] the big picture is a bit overwhelming."

Tyronn Lue is playing "efficiently" while recovering from a shoulder injury, Coach Doug Collins said.Larry Hughes, right, at 6 feet 5, has been starting along with Christian Laettner, providing extra rebounding and scoring.