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Could NBA stars dominate 3x3 basketball at the Olympics? The GOATs aren’t so sure

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TOKYO — The dueling favorites for the first gold medal in men’s basketball here at the Olympics are eight dudes who’ve never played an NBA minute.

They’re Serbians and Latvians. They’re professionals, sort of, but don’t have lucrative contracts. They grew up playing this wonderfully universal sport 5-on-5, but their careers topped out in second-tier Balkan or Baltic leagues.

But on Saturday, they began their chase for gold medals that will look the same, feel the same and weigh the same as the ones Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard will likely win. Technically, they brought a new sport to the Games, 3x3 basketball, popularly pronounced “three ex three.” It’s a cross between streetball, a conditioning drill, a men’s league game and a Euroleague fourth quarter, but at its core, it is very much the same as the world’s second-most popular sport.

So why are borderline amateur 5-on-5ers the best in the world?

Surely, if KD, or really any NBA star showed up, they’d cruise to a guaranteed gold medal … right?

“Yeah, I think —” Latvia’s Nauris Miezis, the world's top-ranked player, began, then he cut himself off and reconsidered. “No. I don't think [Durant] would win the first tournament.”

Hold up. So he’d struggle initially?

“Against Latvia, for sure,” Miezis said with a smile.

Serbia's Dusan Bulut (left) and other 3x3 basketball players may not be the same talent level as NBA players, but that doesn't mean the 5-on-5 pros would just walk in and dominate. (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)
Serbia's Dusan Bulut (left) and other 3x3 basketball players may not be the same talent level as NBA players, but that doesn't mean the 5-on-5 pros would just walk in and dominate. (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)

“I'm not gonna say we're gonna win them easily,” his Latvian teammate Karlis Lasmanis said of games against NBAers. “But they have to know the game. It's not easy for nobody.”

Serbia’s Dusan Bulut, “the 3x3 GOAT,” hesitated too. “Five-on-five players come to 3x3, they need some period of adjustment,” Bulut said.

Indeed, when asked if NBA players could come in and waltz to gold, the prevailing opinion expressed among 3x3 stars was: not so fast. Sometimes partly in jest, sometimes genuinely.

“I don't think every 5-on-5 player will adjust quickly to 3x3,” Dominique Jones, the top American player in FIBA’s world rankings, told Yahoo Sports. “It's not just you coming up and playing, and you're just gonna beat one of the top teams.”

How 3x3 basketball differs from NBA

3x3 basketball is a nonstop sprint of a game. It’s completely positionless. There are check-balls but no inbound passes; 12-second shot clocks and no in-game coaching. There is flexing and European sh*t-talk and techs — especially with substitutes from opposing teams sitting mere feet away from each other.

Matches are played outdoors, on half a rubber court, by 1s and 2s, first to 21 wins. Rugged physicality shrinks space that you’d think would be available. Misses and makes both require the new offensive team to take the ball back beyond the 2-point line, without a stoppage, and with the shot clock starting immediately.

Switching off for a split-second can be costly. "When you score in 5-on-5, you get back on defense,” said Jessey Voorn, a Dutch former pro who only started playing 3x3 last September. “Now, when you take two slow steps, you're gonna get a 2-pointer in your face."

And hiding on defense is impossible, Voorn found, especially in the post. “In 5-on-5, I send [an opponent] one way, and there's help-side coming,” he explained. “Here, I'm on an island.”

Tough shot-making is absolutely necessary. Fatigue is inevitable — especially when teams play two games per day, as they do at the Olympics. Handchecks and even shoulder checks are rarely called.

“You have to get strong,” said Michael Hicks, a Polish-American competing for Poland here in Tokyo. “It's more grabbing, and holding than 5-on-5. That's why I like it. There's no crybabies out here, no flopping.”

It is, in many ways, a more watchable sport than 5-on-5. Games take less than 30 minutes. Go to a game some time, and you’ll never want to glance away.

But the sport is also young. It’s a 21st-century invention. The playground version, which populates parks across the globe, is much different than the competitive version organized by FIBA, basketball’s international governing body. And all of that is why so few elite players have caught on. 

There’s far more money and prestige in 5-on-5, far more professional opportunities. The U.S. foursome that failed to qualify for the Olympics comprised Dominique Jones, Robbie Hummel, Joey King and Kareem Maddox, only two of whom had very limited NBA experience. The qualifying tournament took place in late May, during the first round of the NBA playoffs. Although WNBA regulars will represent Team USA in Tokyo, elite men’s 5-on-5 players haven’t yet taken interest.

NBA players can't just roll ball out and take over 3x3

The question is, what if they did? Does 3x3 offer an easy path to an Olympic medal?

“I don't know,” Voorn said. “That's hard for me to say. The thing is, NBA guys are very talented basketball players. You can come a long way with talent. But, it is a different game. If you're not in top shape, in those 10 minutes, you're gonna feel it, it doesn't matter how good you are.”

That seemed to be the prevailing sentiment. On one hand, the talent on display here can’t compare to the NBA, or even to top European leagues. Hicks was arguably the best player on the court against Latvia Saturday afternoon. He’s a 38-year-old swingman who starred at Division II Central Missouri over 15 years ago. Miezis, the Latvian star, ended his 3x3 career with a Latvian club that has since dissolved. The athleticism here is clearly inferior. Most players are in there 30s, and, well, let’s just say rock-hard abs aren’t ubiquitous.

But, on the other hand: “If you really haven't played, I wouldn't just say, ‘Yo, just roll out the ball and the talent's gonna take over,’” Jones said. “Talent gets you in the door, but I promise you, talent, sometimes it doesn't always [beat] four highly competitive, active guys who understand how 3x3 is played.”

Surely, though, the best of the best, like Durant, would take over.

“I think Kevin Durant can play volleyball also,” Bulut joked. And then, after his caveat about adjustment periods, he concluded: “When you have a gift, and you have talent, you can do this sport easily.”

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