Wizards 97, Bobcats 85

Fans at MCI Center got their first look at the Washington Wizards last night, and in a sense, so did Coach Eddie Jordan.

Gilbert Arenas, Jarvis Hayes and Anthony Peeler returned from minor injuries to play in the Wizards' 97-85 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats, giving Washington the roster it began the preseason with, and more important, giving Jordan a chance to work on his regular season rotation. Jordan and the Wizards have only two preseason games remaining before opening the regular season on Nov. 3.

"It means a lot to have those guys," Jordan said. "It means a lot at both ends of the floor, especially defensively."

For the players, especially projected starters Arenas and Hayes, it was also a valuable chance to develop chemistry in a competitive situation. Arenas missed the previous two games with a sprained right ankle, Hayes sat out a game with a back strain, and Peeler missed a pair because of dental surgery.

Arenas scored a team-high 20 points and Antawn Jamison had 16 to help the Wizards establish an early advantage -- they led 53-42 at halftime -- then hang on for their third win in six preseason games, despite finishing with more turnovers (22) than assists (15). It helped that they were playing the expansion Bobcats, who had 25 turnovers, which the Wizards turned into 27 points.

"It's very important that we all play so we can see how we do as a full unit," Hayes said. "With myself, Gilbert and Anthony back, now we get to see what the team is really like. We're still missing Etan [Thomas], but we'll get a good look at where we are as a team."

Peeler said: "We have to play with each other. It's hard to get a rhythm until that happens. Tonight's a big step toward getting that rhythm."

It was also Washington's only preseason contest at MCI Center, so it was the only opportunity for fans (the Wizards announced a crowd of 11,024) to get a look at the Wizards before the regular season home opener Nov. 6 against Shaquille O'Neal and Miami.

"We'd like to make a statement . . . we are a lot more in sync than we were last year offensively," Jordan said. "We really want to show our fans and organization that we want to pick up our defense."

Although the Wizards are as healthy as they've been in weeks, big men Thomas (abdominal strain) and Kwame Brown (foot surgery) and point guard Steve Blake (ankle surgery) are out for the foreseeable future. Brown said before last night's game that he definitely is not going to be ready for the season opener; Thomas and Blake are also expected to start the season on the injured list.

Larry Hughes goes up and over the Bobcats' Steve Smith as the Wizards evened their preseason record at 3-3.