3x3 basketball: From the streets to an Olympic debut - know all about it

3x3 basketball is an edge-of-the-seat entertainment which made its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.

6 min By Utathya Nag
3x3 basketball GettyImages-1331064788
(Picture by 2021 Getty Images)

From the bustling streets of America to the Olympics – 3x3 basketball has shot into the limelight with blistering speed, much like the pace the game is played with.

Having originated as street basketball in the urban and semi-urban areas of the USA in the late 1980s, the game, at its core, is a condensed form of traditional full-court basketball. However, it wasn’t long before the backyard past-time became a cultural phenomenon.

Its soaring popularity eventually saw it being structured into a professional sport, with official rules sanctioned by the international basketball federation (FIBA), into the game that we know as 3x3 basketball today.

In 2010, the 3x3 game even made its global competitive debut at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.

Just a decade after featuring at the Youth Olympics, 3x3 basketball made its bow in the senior event - for both men and women - at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games.

Here’s everything you need to know about the latest Olympic sport.

How is 3x3 basketball different from traditional basketball?

An offshoot of the traditional basketball, 3x3 basketball shares a lot with the original variant, including ball handling regulations, basic violation rules like goaltending, double dribble, three-second rules, and so on.

However, there are some key structural differences that set the two games apart.

3x3 basketball court size and divisions

Unlike the 5x5 game, which is played on a full-scale basketball court (28mx15m) with two hoops or rings at either end, a 3x3 game is played on a half court -- measuring 11m in length and 15m in breadth – with just a single hoop at one end and an end line at the other.

The playing area is divided into two parts by a semi-circular arc, drawn at a radius of 6.75m from the centre of the hoop. The area inside the arc is called the one-point zone and the area outside the arc is called the two-point zone.

3x3 basketball is played on half court with just one hoop.
3x3 basketball is played on half court with just one hoop.

There’s a rectangular area (5.8mx4.9m) under the hoop called the key and its outer edge parallel to the baseline is called the free throw line.

How many players are in one team of 3x3 basketball?

As the name suggests, 3x3 basketball features three players in each team as opposed to the five in traditional basketball games. There’s only one substitute allowed on the bench in 3x3 basketball, who can enter the game anytime during a dead ball situation by tagging an outgoing player.

The 3x3 basketball ball

The ball used in a FIBA-sanctioned 3x3 basketball game is different from a regular one. A 3x3 basketball ball is the same weight (620g) as the official size 7 basketball used in FIBA’s official men’s 5x5 games but is a little smaller (72.39cm in diameter). A size 7 basketball is 74.93cm in diameter.

The smaller size facilitates better ball handling to suit the faster pace of the game.

How do you play 3x3 basketball?

Based on the aforementioned structural differences, the game is played a little differently than regular basketball as well.

With just one hoop present, there’s no concept of attacking or defending halves for the teams. The game starts with a coin toss and the winner gets to choose whether to begin the game as the offensive team or the defensive team.

Possession switches between teams after every made basket, be it a successful field goal or an unsuccessful attempt. The defensive team can also win possession via a steal, block or defensive rebound. Possession can also be turned over in case of violations.

Once a player takes control of the ball inside the arc, they need to dribble it out or pass it to a team-mate outside the arc before they can take a shot. The ball can be moved around the court either by passing or dribbling.

3x3 basketball shot clock

Like traditional basketball, there’s also a shot clock which determines a fixed time frame under which the offensive team must attempt a shot after taking over possession. In 3x3 basketball, it’s just 12 seconds – half of the 24 seconds allowed in regular basketball.

Offensive teams in 3x3 basketball get only 12 seconds to make their shot at the basket after getting possession of the ball.
Offensive teams in 3x3 basketball get only 12 seconds to make their shot at the basket after getting possession of the ball.

The core idea of the game is the same as regular basketball. The offensive team tries to score points by getting the ball inside the hoop from above while the defensive team tries to stop them.

3x3 basketball scoring

In 3x3 basketball, teams can earn points in two ways – scoring field goals/baskets or through free throws.

A field goal can earn two points or one point.

Two-point shot: Shooting and scoring a field goal from anywhere outside the arc line or from the two-point zone wins the team two points. These are referred to as two-pointers.

One-point shot: If a field goal is scored from inside the arc or the one-point zone, it is worth a single point.

Free throws, meanwhile, are always worth a point each.

Free throws: Awarded due to infractions by opposition players, free throws allow the fouled player to take one or two unimpeded shots at the basket from beyond the free throw line.

A FIBA-sanctioned game of 3x3 basketball is played over just a single 10-minute period. The first team to score 21 points instantly wins the match. If neither team reaches the threshold, the team with more points by the end of these 10 minutes is victorious.

If the score is tied by the end of regulation time, overtime comes into effect with the side which started the game as the defensive team getting first possession.

The first team to score two points in overtime wins the contest. If a team is at 20 points at the end of regulation time, scoring one more point in overtime will win them the match. So, 21 is the maximum number of points a team can score in a 3x3 basketball match.

3x3 basketball – a game of speed

With a smaller court, seamless transitions between offence and defence, lesser time and a shorter shot clock, 3x3 basketball action typically tends to be frantic entertainers, much like popular modern-day variations of traditional sports.

T20 – a shorter variation of cricket - can be considered as another example and like 3x3 basketball has seen rapid growth in popularity in recent years.

From an athlete’s perspective, 3x3 basketball focuses more on agility and versatility than endurance and tactics.

"It's global, it’s urban, it’s a show. It is so fast. You need to think quickly. If you want to be at a high level you have to develop all types of skill,” three-time FIBA 3x3 World Tour winner Dusan Bulut said.

At Tokyo 2020, Latvia became the first-ever 3x3 basketball Olympic champion in men's category while the USA clinched the honours in the women's division.

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