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Hughes, Arenas will be friendly foes

WP: Former teammates will square off when Wizards take on Cavaliers
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

There was a moment during the Cleveland Cavaliers' first regular season visit to Verizon Center back in February when it appeared that Larry Hughes was still very much a part of the Washington Wizards.

Just before the start of the second half, as Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas was honored for being named to his second consecutive Eastern Conference all-star team, Hughes, who was out with a broken right finger, stepped back from the Cleveland huddle and watched his good friend and former teammate walk to midcourt where he soaked in the applause of 20,173 fans.

The look on Hughes's face suggested that he wished he were in the other huddle that night, sharing in Arenas's honor.

"I don't want to say that he has regrets," Arenas said yesterday. "I don't want to put that out there but I'll just say that he misses here."

Hughes signed a five-year, $60 million contract with Cleveland over the summer.

The Wizards responded by acquiring forward Caron Butler in a trade and by signing veteran guard Antonio Daniels to a free agent contract.

Now, nine months after Hughes bolted Washington to join up with LeBron James, the two reconfigured teams will meet in a best-of-seven playoff series. Most of the attention will be on James, who is making his playoff debut, but much of the on-court chatter will be generated by Hughes and Arenas.

In fact, the smack talk has already started.

"It's good because he is a defensive player and he really thinks he can stop me," said Arenas, who averaged 27.8 points, 8.5 assists and 5 rebounds in four games against Cleveland this season. "We started talking trash when they played here last game, so I know that's going to continue when we get out there."

After missing three months with a broken finger, Hughes returned on April 4 and has been working his way back into playing condition while building chemistry with James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Cleveland's other key players.

Hughes, who averaged 15.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 36 games, helped Cleveland finish 50-32 while wrapping up the fourth seed. It will be Cleveland's first playoff appearance since the 1997-98 season, when James was in junior high school.

It will be the third playoff experience for Hughes, who appeared in eight postseason games as a rookie with Philadelphia in 1999 and averaged 20.7 points and 7.1 rebounds in 10 games with the Wizards last spring.

"It feels good for me to play meaningful games against a team I just left," Hughes said. "It is against guys I have a great relationship with. It is more of a fun, meaningful series for me. We should go out and prove we have a good team over here."

The Wizards finished 42-40, three games worse than last season's final record, and needed wins in their final three games to wrap up the fifth seed. The Wizards did attain the first-round matchup they preferred. The Wizards won three of four meetings with Cleveland this season, including the final three, and feel they stack up well against the Cavaliers.

The series is packed with intriguing matchups. Jared Jeffries will open guarding James but Butler and Daniels will both take turns and Jordan will likely mix in some zone defenses as well. Brendan Haywood has held his own against Cavaliers Ilgauskas this season and Antawn Jamison has played well against Drew Gooden.

"Certain teams we match up well against, certain teams we don't," Jamison said. "We have a big guy who can give Ilgauskas some trouble, make it tough on him. We have guys who came come off the bench and match up well with them. We have a lot of energy guys who can match up with them. It's just one of those situations where we have done a good job so far."

Arenas was so excited about the coming playoffs, he headed directly for Verizon Center early Thursday morning after the team plane arrived from Detroit and slept on a couch in the player's lounge.

Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan, still somewhat hoarse and bleary-eyed following Wednesday's 96-80 win over the Pistons, was in his Verizon Center office at 6 a.m. poring over Cleveland game film while formulating a plan for dealing with James and the Cavaliers.

The entire organization seem energized by the team's second consecutive playoff appearance. Owner Abe Pollin is flying 70 team staff members to Cleveland for Saturday's game. President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld was on hand in Detroit on Wednesday night to greet his team as it walked into the locker room after clinching the fifth seed.

"We wanted the best possible seed we could get, and we were able to accomplish that," Grunfeld said. "We finished the season on a strong note. Now, the second season starts. Now, the fun really starts for us."