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Auburn Hills — In the midst of preparing for Friday night’s game against the Charlotte Hornets, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy took a quick study break.

It wasn’t to watch the Chicago Bulls, who lost to the New York Knicks for the second straight night to fall further behind the Pistons for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Van Gundy peeped at the NCAA Tournament to see the Sweet 16 matchup between Villanova-Miami, temporarily distracting his attention away from the grind of the NBA season.

Van Gundy admits he does his share of scoreboard watching, but doesn’t try to watch full games much, as he values his sleep and his own game preparation. The Pistons still have another week before they face the Bulls — in what could be a pivotal game in determining the final playoff spot — but time is precious now for Van Gundy.

“I’ll watch a good part of that when we get ready to play the Bulls,” he admitted Friday.

Although the chase for the No. 7 seed, which the Indiana Pacers hold, isn’t out of the question, it’s just one step at a time for the Pistons as they’re moving forward.

More immediate on Van Gundy’s mind were the Hornets and head coach Steve Clifford, who was an assistant under Van Gundy with the Orlando Magic from 2007-12. The Hornets are on course to have one of their best seasons in franchise history, flirting with the 46-win mark for the first time since 2000-01.

For Van Gundy, that puts Clifford on the short list of candidates for coach of the year.

“There’s been some really outstanding coaching jobs. Obviously, you need to consider Golden State and San Antonio because of their records,” Van Gundy said. “In the East, Steve, (Miami’s) Erik Spoelstra with all the injuries they’ve had and Bosh being out and the job they’ve done and (Boston’s) Brad Stevens.

“Those would be my three guys in the East. There have been a lot of guys who have done good jobs.”

Two years ago, the Charlotte won 43 games and had 44 wins in 2009-10. But this year, behind Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams, the Hornets are contending for the third or fourth seed in the East. With a young core, they could be a team on the rise for years to come — and not a team to be overlooked any longer.

“Not anymore, not since the All-Star break,” Van Gundy said. “They’ve been the best team in the East for a good long stretch. I don’t think anybody’s sleeping on them now.”

Reliable reserves

After missing Wednesday’s win over the Orlando Magic, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Reggie Bullock returned to the lineup on Friday. Flu-like symptoms kept them out and rookie Darrun Hilliard got his first career start, responding with 11 points.

It’s been plenty of shuffling among the wings for Van Gundy this season, but it’s a luxury to have good production when he’s needed to lean on the bench.

“We went to Bullock and he was playing well and now Darrun played really well the other night,” Van Gundy said. “We go to Stanley (Johnson) all the time. Whether Darrun or Reggie plays is a question — and if so, which one. Those have been tough questions all year.”

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

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Hawks at Pistons

Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, The Palace, Auburn Hills

TV/radio: FSD/WMGC

Outlook: In the seventh game of their nine-game home stand, the Pistons will look to even the season series against the Hawks, whom they haven’t beaten since the season opener. In the first three meetings, Andre Drummond averaged 21.5 points and 16.3 rebounds.

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