Big3 going live, looks to make big step forward in second season

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The inaugural season of the Big3 felt a little bit like the 1970s NBA — the games were physical, player conditioning was not always up to modern standards, and the biggest games were shown on tape delay. At least with the Big3 the shorts were longer.

Then we all know what happened to the NBA in the 1980s — Magic and Bird ushered in an era of increased talent around the league, the popularity exploded, and soon the games were not only live but must-watch viewing for sports fans.

The Big3 plans to follow in those footsteps.

In its second season — a barnstorming-style tour which tips off June 22 at the Toyota Center in Houston — Big3 games will be broadcast live every Friday Nights on FS1 (or Fox), and those games will see a lot more talent on the court:

Amar’e Stoudemire. Nate Robinson. Metta World Peace/Ron Artest. Baron Davis. Carlos Boozer. Chris “Birdman” Anderson. That’s just to name a few new faces, joining returnees such as Chauncey Billups, Brian Scalabrine, Kenyon Martin and more (plus coaches including Julius Irving, Charles Oakley, and newcomer Michael Cooper).

“I think the talent level’s a lot better, I think people are going to be in shape,” Andre Owens, the No. 1 pick in the Big3 draft of Scalabrine’s Ball Hogs, told NBC Sports. “And Trilogy (last year’s champion), they got a target on their back. Every game Trilogy plays, people going to try and go after them.

“But the talent level is so much better than last year, and people are going to be in so much better shape. It’s going to be interesting.”

It was something Ice Cube — one of the league’s co-founders — predicted: A lot of good former NBA players were on the fence about his new venture, but once they saw it succeed for a season they were ready to jump in. About 100 players showed up for the Big3 tryouts this season, even though only about 19 could get drafted.

“I just can’t wait to get out there and play,” Artest told NBC Sports. “I just got back into the gym and I’m excited about it. Ice Cube was able to pay to start this thing with his successful career. I’m going to get out there live on Fox on Friday’s I’m very excited about it.”

Those new stars had better not expect deference.

“It’s not your name it’s your game — you got to have real game,” said Owens, who was top five in the league in scoring, rebounds, and assists last season. “You can’t hide it.”

That talent level and the more prominent names will bring more eyeballs to the games, more people tuning in to the production. Going live with that was something the Big3 would not have been ready for in its rookie season, admitted league co-founder Jeff Kwatinetz. They were learning as they went on how to make it work, how to keep the energy up in sold-out major arenas.

“The learning curve, as with any new business, is tremendous,” Kwatinetz said. “Even though it is generally the sport of basketball, 3-on-3 really is its own game with its own strategies, and part of what we learned is the game would really evolve and be something different….

“We made a fair amount of changes after Game 1 (last season)…” Kwatinetz said, noting the first day of games too five-and-a-half-hours. “By the time we went live (on Fox Sports) for the finals, we had learned so much about camera angles and pacing, and how to stage a live event so it would look great on TV.”

The changes they made over the course of the season — such as dropping the games from first to 60 down to 50 — were often about pacing on and off the court. The idea was to keep the energy up in the arena — shorter breaks between games filled with in-house entertainment, and the lower score meant players had to keep up the energy and pace during play, making the product more entertaining.

The nonstop energy needed meant players getting back in the gym early was one theme for season two — players from last season admitted they didn’t grasp the conditioning level needed to play a competitive game of 3-on-3 to 50. It may be half-court ball, but the player movement is constant and players have to be two-way guys.

“The games were quicker, faster, quicker turnaround from offense to defense,” Kwatinetz said. “Less dead time, just things that kept the pace up.”

“It was definitely real basketball,” Owens said. “It’s a little harder than 5-on-5 in that you’ve got to be able to score and you’ve got to be able to play defense. If you can’t do all that you’re going to be exposed. And the contact and the physicality of the game was very intense, so it was definitely harder than 5-on-5.”

The physicality of the league was something the fans and players liked — the Big3 felt a lot more like 1990s era basketball than 2018. Guys were given leeway to bang on each other like the old days, or a good playground game. Players loved it.

“That’s how I play, I put my hard hat on and I’m physical,” Owens said.

The rules of the half-court league — including the much-discussed four-point shot from certain spots on the court — cater more to the mind of a 35-year-old player more than just the speed of a 22-year-old player, organizers said.

“These guys, when it comes to tactics and strategy, and understanding the skills of basketball, they are way beyond what the first or second or third year NBA player is capable of doing,” Kwatinetz said.

But for the players, much of the motivation is the same that has always driven them — pride and ego.

“(Players are) definitely better prepped because they understand that the magnitude of this is just growing,” Owens said of the second season. “You’re playing in big arenas and packed houses and ain’t nobody want to be exposed on TV and in front of friends because they know how serious it is. And you got to be in shape, like I said everything is magnified. You’ve got to be able to play, and if you can’t play you’re going to get exposed.”

The Big3 is making strides on other fronts. They have a new sponsorship deal with Adidas. They will be doing a Young3 event every Thursday in whatever city they are in, reaching out to youth in the area.

Last year, the Big3 found a market — basketball fans would pay for a little nostalgia as long as the product was still good.

Now they are ready to find out just how big that market really is.

Watch Russell Westbrook score season-high 45, help Rockets beat Timberwolves

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Russell Westbrook scored a season-high 45 points and had 10 assists, and the Houston Rockets overcame another tough night from James Harden to rally past the Minnesota Timberwolves 131-124 on Friday night.

Westbrook helped key a second-half comeback after Minnesota led by six points in the third quarter. He finished 16-of-27 shooting, was 13 of 13 from the free-throw line and added six rebounds. Eric Gordon scored a season-high 27 points off the bench for Houston, which won its second straight game following a season-long, four-game losing streak.

Harden, who went 1 for 17 from 3-point range in a home loss to Oklahoma City on Monday night, was 3 of 13 overall and 0 for 6 from beyond the arc against Minnesota. He finished with a season-low 12 points. Harden also left the game for part of the third quarter, limping badly to the bench before returning in the fourth.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 30 points and 12 rebounds for Minnesota, which has lost eight straight. Andrew Wiggins scored 28 points for the Timberwolves.

Minnesota’s streak prompted some frustration after Wednesday’s 117-110 loss at Chicago, when coach Ryan Saunders said the team is simply not playing well. Saunders also challenged Wiggins at halftime of that game to be more productive.

The Wolves started strong while Houston was missing shots. Minnesota led by six in the opening quarter. The Rockets hit just two of their first 11 shots and Harden was 1 of 5. The Rockets also trailed in Minnesota in November before recovering for a 125-105 win.

Led by Westbrook, Houston led by as many as 13 on Friday, but the Wolves didn’t fade.

Minnesota cut the Rockets’ lead to 110-108 with 6 minutes remaining.

Houston had the finisher in Westbrook. He scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 after the Wolves closed within two.

Kawhi Leonard racks up first career triple-double, lifts Clippers past Heat

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MIAMI (AP) — Kawhi Leonard got his first career triple-double and scored 33 points, Landry Shamet added 22 and the Los Angeles Clippers shrugged off an early 15-point deficit before hanging on to beat the Miami Heat 122-117 Friday night.

Leonard finished with 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He was first credited with the triple-double in the third quarter — briefly, because one of his rebounds was taken away after a stat review. He then officially got it on a rebound with 3:55 left.

Lou Williams scored 16 points, Montrezl Harrell had 15 and JaMychal Green added 14 for the Clippers.

Jimmy Butler led Miami with 20 points. Butler left midway through the fourth after appearing to turn his right ankle for the second time in the game, capping a night when he also got inadvertently popped in the eye during the first half.

Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Herro scored 19 points each, Bam Adebayo had 18 and Duncan Robinson added 16 for Miami. The Heat fell to 20-2 at home – 0-2 against teams from Los Angeles. Their only other home loss was to the Lakers.

Miami was down by 18 with 8:34 left, then went on a 24-9 run and got within three on a 3-pointer by Dion Waiters with 34 seconds remaining. But they got no closer, and Leonard sealed it by going 4 for 4 from the foul line in the final moments.

Leonard flirted with a triple-double on two other occasions this season, missing it by two rebounds on Oct. 26 at Phoenix and by one assist on Nov. 11 against Toronto.

The Clippers were without Paul George (left hamstring) for the eighth consecutive game and Patrick Beverley (right groin) for the second straight game, though Beverley tried lobbying his way into the lineup.

Miami was without two point guards – Kendrick Nunn missed the game with left Achilles soreness and Goran Dragic was out with a sore left calf, something that flared up after he got kicked in Wednesday night’s overtime win against Washington.

So, down to 10 available players, Miami had no choice: Dion Waiters played for the first time this season.

Waiters, who had been suspended three times for various issues since October and embarrassed himself and the organization when he ingested at least one cannabis-infused edible and needed medical attention when the team charter plane wrapped up a Phoenix-to-Los Angeles flight in November, played 18 minutes and scored 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting, 4 for 9 from 3-point range.

Miami ran out to a 24-9 lead after seven minutes. The Clippers were within eight by the time the first quarter was done, and 65-63 at halftime. Then they outscored Miami 38-20 in the third to take total control.

Zion Williamson has big dunk, block, scores 15 but Pelicans still fall to Nuggets

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Zion Williamson is still making plays — his first NBA dunk and a dramatic block shot came in his second NBA game — and he is still facing a minutes limit, much to the frustration of fans in the arena.

And the Pelicans are still looking for their first win with Zion in the lineup.

Williamson had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting, plus six rebounds, in his second NBA game. One highlight was his first NBA dunk, finishing an alley-oop from Jrue Holiday just :40 seconds into the game.

However, the most eye-popping of his second game highlights was a fourth quarter blocked shot of Malik Beasley.

Williamson played just 21 minutes, about three more than his first game but still under a tight minutes limit. The crowd chanted “we want Zion” late in the fourth, but the Pelicans are wisely bringing their No. 1 pick along slowly as he recovers from surgery to repair his torn meniscus.

The Pelicans also lost the game 113-106 to a Denver team led by Nikola Jokic‘s 27 points and 12 rebounds.

New Orleans is now 0-2 with Williamson in the lineup. When the team won 11-of-16 just before his return, the Pelicans pulled back from trade talks for Holiday, Derrick Favors, and J.J. Redick to make a playoff push. New Orleans now sits 4.5 games out of the playoffs in the West and would need to leap four teams to get in — if the wins don’t start coming soon (and a lot of them), David Griffin and company will have to reconsider what they do at the trade deadline.

Watch Zion Williamson get his first NBA dunk, an alley-oop finish from Jrue Holiday

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Zion Williamson was impressive in his NBA debut, but he did it from three, not with dunks.

That changed just 40 seconds into his second game.

It was a lob from Jrue Holiday against a Denver defense that did not get back fast enough. Zion and the Pelicans wanted to do this in his debut but give the Spurs credit, they got back in transition and cut off these opportunities. The very shorthanded Nuggets did not.

There will be a lot more Zion dunks — and a lot more spectacular ones — but you never forget your first.