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ATLANTA – During the 2013-14 season, the greatest opponent for the Indiana Pacers wasn't the rival Miami Heat, the surprising Phoenix Suns or even their first-round playoff opponent, the Atlanta Hawks.

All season, the Pacers played as the frontrunner of the East and, over time, the pressure collapsed what some had projected to be a dominant run to the conference finals.

On Thursday afternoon, hours before the Pacers faced elimination — a laughable notion only a few short months ago — Pacers forward Paul George compared the past two off-seasons which are a case study in two very different Indiana teams.

BOX SCORE: Pacers vs. Hawks

PAUL GEORGE: His season of learning

LINEUP: Starters stay the same

"I think last postseason we were just playing, I think, freely," George said. "They expected us to beat Atlanta (in the first round last year), but they didn't expect us to go on and play well. So it was no pressure on us. We were in the playoffs and playing the hardest we could, just playing for one another. This time around, we have a lot of pressure. We earned the No. 1 seed, so our expectations are a lot higher. We just haven't done a great job of playing with that kind of pressure right now."

George Hill, Mike Scott showdown

With 19 seconds remaining in the half, George Hill and Hawks reserve Mike Scott got into a staring, then shoving contest.

Their actions drew double technical fouls, but in the heat of their showdown, George and Rasual Butler, who were both not in the game, made small steps onto the court. However, they remained near the ench.

According to NBA rules: "During an altercation, all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench. Violators will be suspended, without pay, for a minimum of one game and fined up to $50,000."

Copeland in, Hibbert out

A year ago in the closeout game against Atlanta, center Roy Hibbert produced 15 points and nine rebounds. However, no Pacer has exemplified the pressure — and match-up problems — this season more than Hibbert, who is averaging just 4.8 points on 31.3 shooting percentage, 3.4 rebounds and 0.6 blocks per game. He played 6:33 in the first half Thursday night with no points and no rebounds.

Still, coach Frank Vogel stuck with his normal starting five for Game 6, keeping the trust in his lineup even if one has been ineffective.

"I'm confident in this group," Vogel said. "Always has been."

However after the Hawks rolled off 12 straight points and the Pacers trailed 15-5 in the first quarter, Vogel made the bold move of the night by inserting Chris Copeland for Hibbert. Copeland remained on the court into the second quarter as the Pacers and by the time he left, the Pacers led the Hawks 29-28 and finished plus-10 for the half. Backup point guard C.J. Watson also played during the Pacers' first-half resurgence, scored seven points and finished as a plus-15, the best of any player on the court.

Ian Mahinmi started for Hibbert in the second half.

Less Lance?

The numbers do not favor the case of depending on Lance Stephenson against the Hawks.

Though Stephenson has played as his usual sparkplug self during the series, the Pacers have won when he has not been featured much. According to STATS, LLC, Stephenson averaged six points and six rebounds per game in the two previous wins, while he racked up the numbers in the previous losses: 20 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals per game and 47 percent shooting

Call Star reporter Candace Buckner at (317) 444-6121. Follow her on Twitter: @CandaceDBuckner.

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