Hawks center Zaza Pachulia enjoys being a big pest to opposing bigs.
By Jon Cooper
Zaza Pachulia is a nice guy.
He likes getting to know opposing centers and getting close to them. Real close.
He's not afraid to give opposing bigs the occasional pat on the back — they refer to it as a little shove.
It's all part of the game.
"All I try to do is play hard and fill my role on the team and bring energy and toughness," said Pachulia, who is finishing up his eighth year and sixth with the Hawks. "That's all I'm trying to do."
See? It's all just a misunderstanding.
It's a misunderstanding that has probably taken the affable Georgian off Dwight Howard's Christmas card list. Howard joins a growing list of bigs that have already excluded Pachulia, including Boston's Kevin Garnett, who just don't seem to like him very much.
On first pass, his teammates can relate, although they can't really put a finger on why.
"Zaza gets under MY skin," said Marvin Williams, with a laugh. "I sit next to him in the locker room and he constantly gets under my skin. He just has a knack to irritate people."
"It might be his accent," kidded Jason Collins. "The fact that he's European. We don't know what it is."
When they turn serious they have a good idea of what makes Zaza such a pest to bigs and admire him for it.
"Zaza plays hard and he plays physical. Sometimes other players don't like that," said Williams. "That's one thing about him, every night he's going to come out and play physical, he's going to compete. That could be why he frustrates some people."
"He does a great job of just being an agitator," added Collins. "People don't like to get hit. Zaza does a great job of keeping his body on you and making sure that you know that he's around on both ends of the court. He does a good job of sealing on the offensive end and getting good postposition and working hard for it."
The playoffs are his time of year and it's no coincidence that during some of the Hawks most memorable playoff moments in recent years he's been in the middle of things.
Pachulia, who came to Atlanta prior to the 2005-06 season, two years before the Hawks made the Playoffs for the first time in this current four-year stretch, has become the personality of the Hawks in the postseason. He's not Joe Johnson or Jamal Crawford, who hit the bit shots. He's not the emotionally charged Josh Smith, whose snarls are the face of the tough-mindedness.
Pachulia is the quiet, gritty, never-say-die part that digs down and finds a little extra fight. In this series with Orlando, 'Z' has come to personify the dig-in and stand-tall spirit of the Hawks' bigs against the overpowering Howard.
He got suspended for Game Four after his hard foul on Howard set off Orlando guard Jason Richardson. It also drew a technical on Howard.
Pachulia, with his stoicism and determination, not to mention his physical strength, has made him like the bug that you try to swat but can't kill. He buzzes around and buzzes around. The harder you try to hit him the angrier it makes him and the more determined. Finally it's the swatter who loses it.
"You hate to see any type of skirmish because it's the playoffs and eveything's magnified, everything's intensified as well, but he's the crowd favorite for that reason," said Crawford. "He comes out with so much energy, you know he has your back, he's a great guy off the court and we all have his back on the court as well."
"I don't know how he does it other than just being physical, always being up underneath somebody and moving them," added center Hilton Armstrong, who played the lion's share of Pachulia's minutes in Game Four. "He's a strong guy, so he just pushes them around a little bit and I guess other players get frustrated at the ref for not calling it. So they react and take it out on him, maybe. I'm just glad I'm a part of it now."
Pachulia will likely receive a heavy dose of boos when he takes the floor in Game Five at Amway Center tonight. That wouldn't be surprising until you consider that he began his career in Orlando, was a crowd favorite during his one season there (2003-04) and his departure was lamented by fans, media and players alike.
But that's the playoffs and Pachulia's desire to win certainly isn't going to change. Hawks Head Coach Larry Drew certainly doesn't want it to.
"Zaza has found a way of getting under people's skin," said Drew. "That's who I want him to be. I want him to be a guy that when he gets in the game can change the rhythm of the game by playing with a physicality. Not playing dirty but taking hard fouls.
"You have to have guys like that on your team to kind of change the rhythm of the game," Drew continued. "He knows that's what I want from him when he gets in the game. Not anything dirty. Just do things hard, do things with urgency and play with a physicality."
As the Hawks seek the series clincher for the third straight season, Pachulia will do exactly what Drew wants him to — whatever the means.
"A lot of guys don't like the physicality," he said. "That's why I get under guys skin, as you guys call it. We all have to do a good job. In the playoffs you need everybody. Everybody has to do a good job and try to frustrate them. That's what brings you success."
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