ATLANTA (AP) - Zaza Pachulia spends most of his time as an obscure backup center for the Atlanta Hawks, playing a few minutes here, a few minutes there. He's rugged but hardly graceful. He's a banger who handles the dirty work, letting others claim the glory.But in the playoffs? He's fearless. He's a leader. He's invaluable.
Two years running, the 6-foot-11 native of Georgia - the country - has taken a lead role for the team that plays in the state of Georgia.
A postseason ago, Pachulia fired up Atlanta by going forehead-to-forehead with Boston All-Star Kevin Garnett, showing his underdog team had no intention of backing down to the eventual champion Celtics in a series that surprisingly went the full seven games.
On Monday, Pachulia may have saved this season for the Hawks with his gritty performance in Game 4 against the Miami Heat. Getting down and dirty - and sporting a black eye for extra effect - he scored 12 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in a game the Hawks had to have, an 81-71 victory that sent the series back to Atlanta tied at two games apiece.
"I don't care how Dwyane Wade shot or how Miami played or how we played, we don't win that game without Zaza. Period," said Atlanta forward Marvin Williams, who's missed the last two contests with an ailing wrist and is questionable for Game 5 Wednesday night. "He was phenomenal. What he did for our team was huge."
In a series of blowouts - all four games have been decided by at least 10 points - Pachulia could play a huge role for the Hawks, especially if Williams remains sidelined and puts more strain on an already thin bench.
Coach Mike Woodson went with essentially a seven-man rotation in Game 4, and Pachulia was on the court for the crucial minutes instead of starting center Al Horford.
That was an easy call. Horford struggled through a 1-for-5 shooting night. Pachulia shot better (5 of 8), played harassing defense and seemed to grab every loose ball in the 305 area code. All were keys to the Hawks' victory, which was the first road playoff win for the team since 1997 and its first postseason win ever with so few points being scored by its top scorer (Mike Bibby with 15).
"When Zaza walked on the bus," Woodson said, "I told him I was very, very proud of the way he played. In playoff basketball, someone has got to do the dirty work."
Pachulia has not only played the part in the playoffs, he looks it. He took a shot to the right eye during Atlanta's 29-point loss Saturday, and he still had an impressive shiner for Tuesday's practice.
"The level of basketball is higher," he said. "You can't play the same way. You should go higher and do more things."
The Heat knows it will have to match Pachulia's intensity to steal another win in Atlanta.
"We're a little disappointed. Angry," rookie Michael Beasley said. "We just didn't look like we wanted to win. They looked like they wanted it more than we did. We can't play like that, especially in the playoffs, especially against a good team like that. They've got so many weapons. They can come at you so many ways."
The Heat also has some injury woes. Wade is bothered by back spasms but said he'll definitely play in Game 5. Jamario Moon isn't as fortunate; Miami said the backup forward is done for the season after being diagnosed with a sports hernia that needs surgery.
Pachulia couldn't feel any better. He's following up on last year's series against the Celtics, the Hawks' first playoff appearance in nine years and first of his career.
In Game 4, he took offense when Garnett swung as elbow trying to grab an offensive rebound. Pachulia shouted some angry words and got right in the Boston star's face, their foreheads actually brushing before teammates stepped in to separate them without any punches being thrown.
"I want to remember that intensity," he said.
A friend of Pachulia sent him an e-mail shortly after Monday's victory.
"He said, 'You must love Game 4,"' the big center said. "Of course, I didn't understand at first. But I've only been in the playoffs twice. Then I remembered what happened in last year's Game 4. I was like, 'Oh, yeah, that was the fight with K.G."'
He broke into a big smile.