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Not playing like losers
by Gery Woelfel / March 11, 2004

Despite a radical roster makeover and despite minimal fan interest -- you don't need a calculator to count bodies at Phillips Arena these days -- the Hawks aren't playing like walking deadmen.

"The guys are playing hard; there's still a lot at stake for them,'' Hawks coach Terry Stotts said. "We've got a lot of guys on the last year of their deals, so they're playing for next year also.

"The thing I'm most pleased with is not necessarily that they're playing hard but how they're playing. They're trying to play together; they're trying to play the right way. I told them the best way for them to be shown in a good light for their careers is by how they play together, by how hard they play and by how they play defense. If they do those things, that can only help them.''

And there are a lot of players on the Hawks who know they need to be perceived in the right way. After all, only four of them -- Jason Terry, Boris Diaw, Alan Henderson and Chris Crawford -- will still be under contract after the season.

One of those players who won't be and will be job hunting this summer is center Joel Przybilla, whom the Hawks acquired prior to the NBA's trading deadline in February.

A lottery pick in the 2000 Draft, Przybilla never established himself in his three-plus seasons in Milwaukee. For the first half of this season with the Bucks, Przybilla seldom got off the bench as new Bucks coach Terry Porter opted to use a three-headed center combination of Brian Skinner, Dan Gadzuric and Daniel Santiago.

Przybilla played in just five games for the Bucks, totaling a meager 33 minutes before being dealt. In Atlanta, he has averaged nearly that number. The 7-foot-1 Przybilla is playing 28.9 minutes per game as a starter for the Hawks and has made his presence felt defensively around the basket. He recently had a five-game stretch in which he grabbed at least 10 rebounds a game, including 14 against a giant named Shaq.

Suffice to say, Przybilla, whom former Bucks general manager Ernie Grunfeld traded up in the 2000 draft to
select and predicted would be the Bucks' center for the next decade, is delighted with his change of scenery.

"I knew Terry coming in and he said, 'All I want you to do is rebound and block shots,' '' Przybilla said of Stotts, who was an assistant coach during Przybilla's first two seasons in Milwaukee. "It feels real good to be with him and this team. It's a fresh start for me.

"This is a great opportunity for me, and I'm trying to take advantage of it.''

Another player who wants to make the most of his opportunity is forward Chris Crawford. Not only has Crawford been hampered by knee injuries throughout his seven-year pro career, he's had the misfortune of playing behind some talented players, specifically Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Glenn Robinson.

But after Robinson was dealt over the summer to Philadelphia and Abdur-Rahim was traded in February to
Portland, Crawford was inserted into the starting lineup. He, too, has seized the moment. Crawford has averaged 17.9 points in the last 11 games. Not shabby for someone whose career average coming into this season was 5.5 points.

"The trades, unfortunately, is how I got my chance,'' Crawford said. "But that's the NBA. I knew I could play at this level, but I needed a chance. Now I've got that chance and I've tried to take advantage of it. I feel I'm playing pretty good, and now I have to keep going the rest of the year.''

With Crawford and Przybilla stepping up, the Hawks haven't been pushovers like most lottery-bound teams. The Los Angeles Lakers rudely discovered that last week, falling to the Hawks 94-93 in Atlanta. It was an upset, one television proclaimed, of "biblical proportions.''

Indeed, the Hawks aren't ready to go on vacation yet. "We've had some tough losses and there were games
where we were blown out, but we played hard,'' Hawks guard Bob Sura said. "We're professionals. We're getting paid to play, so we have to approach this the right way.''

Sura said Stotts has done a commendable job of maintaining a sense of stability in what could be a highly-unstable situation.

"Terry's done an outstanding job of preparing us and getting us ready to compete and trying to win ballgames,'' Sura said. "I think he's done a great job.''

And the Hawks players have followed Stotts' lead.

Said Hawks assistant coach Mike McNeive: "There have been so many personnel changes with our team. We got new guys, new plays, but the guys have been playing consistently hard. They could have easily quit, but they've kept plugging away. Enough can't be said about that.''

Gery Woelfel covers the Milwaukee Bucks and the NBA for The Racine (Wis.) Journal Times

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