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The U.S. Will Likely Medal In 3x3 Basketball. What To Know About The New Sport

TOKYO — In 3-on-3 basketball, the action almost never stops.

Traditional basketball's scrappy cousin is making its Olympic debut in Tokyo, introducing the world to the dizzyingly fast, more compact play of the game of driveways and public parks.

And while the competition is intense and players are laser-focused, the event officially known as 3x3 basketball at the Olympics is set up to evoke the fun, upbeat vibe of a street pickup match.

The 3-on-3 basketball arena is outdoors and half the size of a traditional basketball court. The ball is slightly smaller. A DJ blasts music as the players face off.

"From a spectator's point of view, it's fun to watch, energetic, never a dull moment," said U.S. player Allisha Gray, who is a guard in the WNBA for the Dallas Wings. "Overall, it's just fun to play."

With the U.S. women contending for a medal on Wednesday, here's everything you need to know to enjoy the new Olympic sport.

It's way more fast-paced than basketball and over in a flash

When the players take the court, there are 10 minutes on the clock — about a fifth of the time of an NBA game. Those 10 minutes are absolutely breakneck.

Both teams shoot into the same hoop. There's a winner when the clock runs out or a team reaches 21 points – whichever comes first.

In traditional basketball, after a team scores, the game pauses as the other team takes possession. Then, they bring the ball into play again. But in 3-on-3, when there's a basket, the teams play on without pause.

And when a team has possession of the ball, they must take a shot within 12 seconds. NBA players have double that amount of time.

It's also a rougher game than traditional basketball. "You don't get many foul calls," Gray said.

Fouls that would easily be called in the NBA or WNBA often slide by.

The sport is trying to stay true to its street roots

The sport that grew out of urban parks is trying to evoke that atmosphere, even in the top competition.

Music pulses even when the game is being played. On Tuesday in Tokyo, Yu Matsuzaki, who goes by DJ You, was spinning music you might hear at a club, like Kanye West and Nelly.

She said she thinks up-tempo music helps energize the players. Under normal circumstances, it would also energize the spectators.

"I think this 3x3 is very different from the other sports, because the music is part of creating the cool atmosphere. And the music can change a lot about the game," she said, speaking through a translator.

It's new to international competition but is fast-growing

The sport has been played in international competition for only about a decade – a rapid rise from the streets to the largest event in international sports.

"I think it's got a great future around the world, it's a lot of fun to play. ... I think more than anything, the stage of the Olympics is going to help it continue to grow," said Kara Lawson, the head coach of women's basketball at Duke who is coaching the 3-on-3 team.

"I have people calling me and texting me about how fun these games are."

Japan's Stephanie Mawuli heads to the basket past U.S. player Kelsey Plum during a women's 3 x 3 basketball game at the Summer Olympics on Tuesday.
Jeff Roberson / AP
Japan's Stephanie Mawuli heads to the basket past U.S. player Kelsey Plum during a women's 3 x 3 basketball game at the Summer Olympics on Tuesday.

The U.S. is likely to win a medal

The U.S. women are a clear medal favorite. They've already clinched their spot in the semifinal – and if all goes well, they'll play for gold on Wednesday at 8:55 a.m. ET.

The U.S. won six out of their seven games so far, but were unexpectedly defeated by the Japanese on Tuesday.

"We thought the USA is not beatable," Japanese player Risa Nishioka said after her team's victory.

Gray said her team is looking ahead to the next game. "All we can do is just bounce back from this game and now that game is in the past, we focus on the semifinals," she said.

Gray is competing with Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young from the Las Vegas Aces and Stefanie Dolson from the Chicago Sky.

3-on-3 opens up new opportunities for basketball players

The 3-on-3 format gives chances to basketball players outside the spotlight of traditional play.

Fewer players means it's easier for countries that haven't been dominant in basketball to field a team. For example, Mongolia fielded a women's 3-on-3 squad – the first time the country has ever competed in a team sport at the Olympics.

And for countries that are basketball powerhouses, 3-on-3 adds four more players heading to the Olympics in basketball.

Many of the athletes playing are amateurs, without the relative comfort of the life of a professional basketball player.

"We've all got full-time jobs," Belgian player Thierry Marien, who works in human resources at a digital design company, said after his team defeated Poland with a buzzer beater. "Practicing like a pro, and traveling all weekends, Friday to Sunday and then go to work on Monday."

But being at the Olympics makes the long hours worth it, he said. "It's so, so exciting to be here at this stage and compete for a medal."

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.