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.