Eddie Palladino had been dreading the Celtics-Pacers game all week. Not because the Celtics seemed overmatched by the Pacers, who entered the game with the second best record in the Eastern Conference. Palladino, the Celtics' public address announcer, had been dreading the game because he would have to deal with his toughest challenge yet: Sarunas Jasikevicius.
"What's his name mean to me? It means headaches," said Palladino, who has been the Celtics' announcer for three years. "He's number one in the [hardest] name category."
Palladino isn't the only one who's getting headaches from Sarunas Jasikevicius (Shuh-RU-ness yah-sa-KEV-uh-chiss).
Opponents have learned quickly that the former Maccabi Tel Aviv point guard is a dangerous threat on the court.
"He's a solid player," said Paul Pierce, after the Celtics defeated the Pacers 85-71 on Wednesday night. "He's a veteran as far as playing professional basketball, and it shows out there. He's not your ordinary rookie."
Unless your ordinary rookie is 29 years old with three professional championships to his name, the basketball world could not agree more with Pierce. It took Jasikevicius only 15 games to play his way into the starting lineup when Jamaal Tinsley went down with a strained quadricep on November 30. Tinsley may have to work extra hard to earn back his starting role.
Heading into Wednesday's game, Jasikevicius was fifth in the league in three-point percentage (.475%), third in free throw percentage (.94), and averaging 9.4 points per game and 2.9 assists.
More important, he's stepping up his game at just the right time. With the Pacers having to deal with their mercurial forward Ron Artest and his trade demands, Jasikevicius is filling the gaps that Artest's absence has opened.
"He's like a sponge, he's always asking questions," said Pacers teammate Jermaine O'Neal. "He's not one of the players that you say something to and he gets upset about it. He's like, 'OK, I got it. I'm gonna do it.' And he goes out and corrects it.
"I think that's what makes his transition so easy, because he is extremely bright for one, he's willing to learn, and he wants to be really good in this league.
"He's proved to people in the Europe league that he's one of the best over there, now he wants to prove to people that he can take that same ability in from the Europe league and play over here and play at a high level, and I think he has a great chance."
Jasikevicius had been criticized early on for being an inadequate defender, a knock on his quickness. While he doesn't compare to Artest's defensive play, he has made vast improvements.
"He plays real well offensively, and he's been solid on defense," said Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle. "He makes a lot of good things happen for us on both ends of the court."
And the Lithuanian says he is enjoying himself playing in the best basketball league in the world.
"I'm really happy with the way things are going," said Jasikevicius. "The size and the speed [are the biggest difference between Europe and the NBA], other than that it's the same game."
Jasikevicius admits that the city of Indianapolis bores him, and that he misses the fast-pace European cities like Tel Aviv.
"I just gotta start all over again," he said. "I left a very comfortable situation. I left a situation where I had many friends, everything was very known to me and comfortable. Here everything is new.
"At the same time, this is why it's so great to be here: Everything is new, it's interesting."
He still keeps in touch with many of his Maccabi teammates and doesn't think that his absence has anything to do with the team's mediocre start.
"There's bad starts, there's good starts. Everybody knows that they're a very good team and at the end of the year they'll be there fighting for the main thing."
As for his new club, the Pacers are hoping that he'll bring his three-championship winning streak to Indiana.
"We understand what Sarunas has done over there, and we really feel like he adds to what was already a good team," said O'Neal. "He makes us better. I'm pretty excited come March, April to see where we are, and to see where he is as a player."
One person who won't be excited to see Jasikevicius later in the season is Eddie Paladino, a man most grateful that the Pacers left town.