New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson and guard Josh Hart...

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson and guard Josh Hart talk on the court in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

 TORONTO

It was late, and the locker room had nearly cleared out Friday night. Donte DiVincenzo and Ryan Arcidiacono were two of the last players left, and they were comparing stories — complaints — about Jalen Brunson’s penchant for drawing charges even in practice while they were all at Villanova.

“Yeah, Jalen’s always done that,” DiVincenzo said. “It was actually annoying in college because he did it in practice. I hated it. Because I was always going off on one foot, and he was always taking the charge. And I got it every time.”

This came after Brunson answered every question about DiVincenzo’s 21 points on 7-for-9 shooting from beyond the arc and Josh Hart’s 15 consecutive points in the third quarter of the Knicks’ win over the Raptors with a straight face and a similar response.

“I do not care about Josh, do not care about Donte,” Brunson said. “Do not care about either one of them. Really, I don’t. Bad people.”

Hart spent much of his time in the postgame locker room making goat noises as Brunson tried to conduct his interview. And even Julius Randle — not part of the Villanova contingent and the elder statesman among the rotation pieces — joined in. Smiling, he answered questions about the team, any question, with a similar refrain of “I think the only reason we really won today is we got Josh Hart’s usage up,’’ a joking reference to Hart’s complaint earlier in the week.

And the point of all of this is that much was made of the Knicks’ improvement this season coming from continuity, adding only DiVincenzo to a team that won 47 games last season. While chasing stars is a constant mantra among fans of the team and even at the highest levels of the corporate structure, the Knicks settled for growth from within and a familiarity with the style of play and demands of coach Tom Thibodeau.

The thing is, the continuity goes beyond the production. With the four Villanova products and old friends — DiVincenzo was Brunson’s roommate during their college days — a style of play has been set on the court and a tone of togetherness has been created in the locker room.

“If you look at Villanova, how they play and how we played there, that’s what we did there,” Hart said of the ball movement among the former college teammates. “Always get in the lane. Get in the lane. Kick out. Defense rotating. And that first initial kick-out is a quick pass to the top . . . So that’s kind of we know we can play basketball, and the benefit of having Jalen and Donte and me at the same time is we all know that. We all know each other’s strengths and we’re comfortable.”

That you can see on the court. There was one play Friday that has been repeated more frequently this season: Randle got into the lane, drew the defensive help to him and kicked it out to Hart, who then drove from the corner and found Brunson in the opposite corner. Brunson quickly shuffled a pass to DiVincenzo, with the extra pass moving quicker than the defense and resulting in an open three-pointer.

“We’re creating advantages, getting to the paint, either getting to the rim or finding people when we kick the ball out,” Brunson said, pausing for the goat sounds to die down. “Just staying in attack mode and get to the basket, get to the point, make plays. If they collapse, we’ll find shooters. If not, we have a lot of people who can finish.”

The locker room emptied and shortly after, Brunson posted a story on Instagram in which he had Arcidiacono unpack his large backpack on the team plane. It also included Hart and Brunson mocking the size and contents.

Brunson also spent much of last season as the straight man to Hart’s comic adventures when they shared a postgame stage for interviews (often with Hart dining while professing innocence in trying to bait Brunson into laughter).

The Villanova players united to win a championship in college — some of them won two — and they haven’t come close to that yet with the Knicks. But managing a 12-7 record through a grueling early-season schedule (five sets of back-to-back games and 10 on the road) and earning a spot in the In-Season Tournament quarterfinal round Tuesday in Milwaukee shows they have made progress.

But off the court is where the progress may be most evident. They are having fun together as the Knicks become a team that other players want to join, something that hasn’t happened in New York in a long time.

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