It was a stellar performance from Jose Maria Gil Narbon that made the difference as Swords Thunder claimed their first ever Irish cup. Emmet Ryan explains how the Real Madrid academy product is the different piece that makes him stand out in the Irish Superleague
The casual fan in Ireland is no different to the casual fan anywhere else. They want dunks, threes, and fast breaks. The pressure on international players in Ireland to deliver all three is huge and it doesn’t get any bigger than cup final day with the eyes of the nation watching.
This cup final’s MVP didn’t deliver a performance for the casual fan. Jose Maria Gil Narbon is the type of guy an aficionado loves, the type of player basketball people in Ireland want to see more of and see young players emulate. His game is as subtle as it is effective, making him quietly one of the most dominant forces in the game here today.
Saturday’s final got off to a stodgy start with neither team able to develop much of a rhythm but Narbon found a way to be effective where he could, drawing three fouls off defenders in the opening 10 minutes to force Killester to make adjustments with their rotations early. His countryman, Alex Calvexe, carried the load in the second quarter as Swords moved into a six point lead at the break but it was little things Narbon was doing that were frustrating Killester.
There was a Narblock party through the decisive middle quarters of the game, with the Spaniard racking up 4 while the game was still in the balance. Add in his 8 rebounds, 2 steals, and 12 points on the night and you have a good statline but one that really understates his impact on the floor.
Killester just couldn’t get good looks in this game. Their offence was a mess and it wasn’t for want of trying. They were just coming up against a brilliant defensive mind alternating between the 4 and 5 for Swords Thunder. With American bigs Justin Goldsborough and Conroy Baltimore alternating alongside him, Narbon was able to work off the power of the two imports to become a terror with his positioning, gliding into the ideal place to give Killester bad looks.
What really made his display stand out however was that he was able to make such an impact in what was a pretty poor game overall. Swords, despite their deservedly broad margin of victory in a 71-52 display, know they can play better. There were stints in the first half where Isaac Westbrooks was playing frustrated, where Charlie Coombes and Alex Dolenko over-worked the ball too, and yet still they remained on top. Narbon was a steadying presence, he knew those around him would find a way back into the game and he worked on ensuring the spacing was right for his guys to have that time to find it.
The difference between making it look easy and looking lazy is the former is more obvious when you make things go right. Narbon can be a grinder but he openly prefers the 4, he wants that little bit more room so he looks to find a way to make that extra space and time for himself even in the low post. Going hard is fine but if you can find a way to get the same result and still have the energy and position to start a fast-break it’s better.
After the game, the naturally calm Spanish big man was able to show a little emotion in reacting to winning the cup and taking the MVP award in the process.
“I’m really happy. Everybody told me when I came here about the people and the environment, that they would cheer us. It was great to see that, to have that kind of support,” says Narbon.
“Defensively we were really good, we were able to shut them down from deep. That’s what we worked on. It was really tough out there, it always is when I play against Jermaine [Turner]. We defended well together and it came together. The plan was to trust our process, play what we practiced, and to focus on our game.”
There’ll be some chance of a rest for Narbon, well two nights. The Spaniard now has to focus on targeting a second title in his first year in Ireland with a manic run-in in the three-way race for the Superleague title with Templeogue and UCD Marian. He may not be the six-pack drinker’s preference but Narbon knows how to get the job done.
The +/- stat in basketball is able to be the most meaningless and illuminating at the same time and rarely was it as obvious here. Alex Dolenko had a quiet enough night for Swords, with just 4 points, 2 boards, and a steal, but he was comfortably the leader in +/-. Dolenko wouldn’t even dream of claiming he was the decisive piece in this one but his time on the floor illustrated what sets made Swords most effective. When Thunder switched to a three guard set of Dolenko, Calvexe, and Westbrooks, the extra pace coupled with improved spacing (hey, how about that Narbon guy’s work on spacing kids…ok enough) meant they could stretch Killester out more.
Speaking to BiE afterwards, Thunder coach Dave Baker said the plan to alternate sets and have some heavy use of three-guard rotations was part of the game-plan going into the final.
“We’re just so deep to be honest. With the guys that we can bring in and out, it’s about getting more players involved. We don’t have someone who is going to put up 40 points, when we win games there are five or six guys in double figures,” says Baker.
“Jose is phenomenal. He changes people’s shots and Killester ran out of ideas against him in the third and fourth quarters.”