ATLANTA — 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 guess what? 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 tonight.
"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.