Hawks get Pachulia back for possible clincher

When Zaza Pachulia showed up for practice Monday, one guy was
really glad to see him.

”I gave him a big hug,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said.

Atlanta’s bruising center was suspended from Game 4 of the
Eastern Conference playoffs after head-butting Orlando’s Jason
Richardson, a play that just added to the lore of a bench player
who knows his role is to play physical, turn up the passion and, oh
yeah, stir things up a bit.

Three years ago in the playoffs, Pachulia went forehead to
forehead with Boston star Kevin Garnett, refusing the back down
after they got into a tussle. Earlier this month, in a game at the
end of the regular season, Zydrunas Ilgauskas became so annoyed at
Pachulia’s tactics that he threw the ball off his back.

And they’re friends!

Pachulia just seems to have that effect on people, which is why
the Hawks are so glad to have him back for a potentially
series-clinching game Tuesday night.

”You can’t put what Zaza does into words,” teammate Marvin
Williams said. ”The energy, the intensity, everything he brings to
this team, it’s really hard to replace.”

With Pachulia watching from home, the Hawks ran at least five
different players at Magic star Dwight Howard and held on for an
88-85 victory to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. Orlando
was short-handed, too – Richardson received a one-game suspension
for striking Pachulia in the face after taking several
head-butts.

No one was more relieved about the outcome Sunday night than
Pachulia.

”I was proud,” he said. ”I really wanted to win that game,
especially with me being suspended. I’m just glad those guys have
my back.”

It wasn’t easy to watch.

”Not being part of the team, not being able to communicate with
my teammates, give them a high-five or yell at them or talk to
them, I was very separated,” he said. ”It was a terrible
experience. I hope I’m never in that situation again.”

The 6-foot-11, 275-pound Pachulia is willing to mix it up with
Howard, limiting the imposing Magic star to a series-low 21 points
in Game 3 while managing to stay on the court for more than 26
minutes – no small feat, given the way Howard draws fouls once he
gets the ball down low.

It’s all part of a different tact taken by the Hawks after they
were wiped out by Orlando in last year’s playoffs, taking the most
lopsided four-game sweep in NBA history.

Seven-footer Jason Collins is starting at center in this series,
with Pachulia serving as his backup. That move had a domino effort,
pushing Al Horford to power forward, Josh Smith to small forward
and Marvin Williams to a bench role. The Hawks have largely
committed to Collins and Pachulia guarding Howard straight up,
conceding he will do plenty of damage but allowing the rest of the
team to focus on stopping Orlando’s outside shooters.

The strategy has worked to perfection. Howard is averaging 32.3
points and 17.5 rebounds, yet the Magic is on the verge of
elimination. Only one other Orlando player is scoring in double
figures, and everyone outside of Howard has combined to shoot a
dismal 81 of 242 (33 percent).

Pachulia is eager to get back to what he does best: playing hard
and irritating folks.

But no more head-butts, right?

Pachulia merely smiled.

”Never say never?” someone said.

”Exactly,” Pachulia replied.