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Team USA wins 3x3 basketball gold, and 3x3 basketball wins the Tokyo Olympics

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TOKYO — Kelsey Plum opened the first-ever 3x3 basketball tournament at the Olympics with a wave to the First Lady of the United States, and she ended it here on Wednesday night with a brilliant performance in the final to lead Team USA to gold.

Plum danced and dazzled past Russia to lead a four-woman team of Stefanie Dolson, Allisha Gray and Jackie Young, all playing during the WNBA’s monthlong Olympic break, to the title. Dolson’s put-back with just over 30 seconds left all but sealed a 18-15 U.S. victory. Gray tossed the ball up the air. The four women rushed to the free throw line to embrace.

Later in the evening, Karlis Lasmanis buried a clutch 2-pointer to give Latvia a 21-18 victory in the men's gold medal game against Russia, which had upset favored Serbia in the semifinals.

3x3 basketball made its Olympic debut in Tokyo without an American men’s team, but the U.S. women ran the show, almost wire-to-wire. They beat France and Mongolia on Saturday, then Romania and Russia on Sunday, then Italy and China on Monday. They lost to Japan in their final group game, but already had a bye to the semis locked up.

(Left to right) Jacquelyn Young, Stefanie Dolson, Kelsey Plum and Allisha Gray celebrate winning the first 3x3 basketball Olympic gold medal in history. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Left to right) Jacquelyn Young, Stefanie Dolson, Kelsey Plum and Allisha Gray celebrate winning the first 3x3 basketball Olympic gold medal in history. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, in those semis, they beat France in a nail-biter, and then, for the first time all Olympics in between games, they retired to their hotel for some rest. A few hours later, they returned for the 9:55 p.m. gold medal match. They trotted out to a traditional Japanese percussion performance, with IOC president Thomas Bach in attendance.

And then they fought all sorts of contact. At least three of the four U.S. players spent time on the ground. Russia had the size advantage. The U.S. had the skill. Plum’s mid-range jumper gave the Americans an early 6-1 lead. They extended it to 12-5 before Russia pulled back to within 12-9. But Russia’s foul trouble proved costly. The U.S. stayed at arm’s length with defense and rebounding, and held on for gold.

3x3 basketball is the breakout sport of the Olympics

3x3 basketball has been one of the revelations of these Olympics. It’s played on less than half a rubber court, with a 12-second shot clock, no inbounds passes and relentless pace. The physicality on the men’s side is brutal. The rhythm on the women’s side is alluring. There’s no flopping. No time to talk to refs.

And perhaps best of all, games go to 21 by 1s and 2s, and never take longer than 30 minutes. Teams played twice a day here. Often, they didn’t shower in between. Sometimes, they didn’t even change uniforms.

The sport is part streetball, part conditioning drill, part men’s league game, part WNBA fourth quarter, and all it needed for liftoff is the Olympic stage. Dozens of games over five days entertained hundreds of officials, volunteers and stakeholders here. The beautiful Aomi Urban Sports Park yearned for a packed house.

More marketing dollars were already pouring into the sport before these Games, and they’ll surely continue flowing between now and Paris 2024. By Los Angeles 2028, there’s no telling how big it can be.

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