Kevin Garnett’s  highly anticipated return to live game action was sharp, efficient and uneventful. The first two adjectives are nice, but the last is the most important for the Celtics  as they began pursuit of another NBA championship in a 96-90 loss to the Rockets in their 2009 preseason opener in Hidalgo, Texas, Wednesday night. (Click here for a game recap ).
On the Celtics’ first possession, Garnett popped out and drained 20-foot jump shot. A few possessions later Garnett again played pick-and-pop and knocked down another. The jumpers were a pleasant reminder of the Garnett we all remember, as were the six points, five rebounds and two steals, but what was most telling in Garnett’s 14 minutes (8 in the first half, 6 in the second) was that he was mobile getting up and down the floor and active on defense in his first game since March 25.
The only blemish was when he couldn’t get up quickly enough on a Rajon Rondo  lob, but that’s partly timing as well. Garnett’s second half was mostly nondescript, although he did work in a post-up on the left block where he showed his usual deft footwork.
The Celtics are still 20 days from the actual season-opener, Oct. 27 in Cleveland, and there’s a lot of training camp left for Garnett and his surgically repaired knee to grind through, but Wednesday night in the Texas border town was a positive first step.
A few other quick observations from the Celtics opener:
THE REPLACEMENT REFS ARE A PROBLEM
It’s hard to find a lot of sympathy for NBA refs at any point in time, but count on a growing sentiment to emerge among the players and coaches as the preseason continues. The game was too fast for the refs at times and there was an awful lot of hand-checking that went uncalled.
And yet there were still 102 free throws, which even for a preseason game is way too many. NBA players are adept at adjusting their games to the refs, but what they want more than anything is consistency, which was in short supply. There were some funky calls, including a travel on Ray Allen  for a move he’s been making since before he played Jesus Shuttlesworth in “He Got Game.”
The easiest prediction of the night was the technical foul on Rasheed Wallace  after what he thought was a clean block.
THE SECOND UNIT SHOULD BE MUCH BETTER THIS YEAR
Beyond Garnett, the most impressive player on the floor for the Celtics Wednesday was Marquis Daniels , who finished with seven points, three rebounds and a team-high five assists. Whether or not he can actually be the backup point guard is still an open question, but after watching the opener it may not even be the right question.
Daniels split time at the spot with Eddie House  and rookie Lester Hudson , but with Daniels and Wallace on the floor the Celtics are incredibly versatile, which helps negate the need for a creator type of point guard. Daniels looks like he can be the long sought-after replacement for James Posey  defensively, but it’s Wallace who is the long sought-after replacement for Posey offensively with his ability to stretch the floor.
The biggest mark against Daniels’ game is that he is not a particularly good long-range shooter, but he is a terrific slasher, and with House and Wallace stretching the perimeter there should be ample room for Daniels to operate.
The second unit looks to be a combination of House, Daniels, Wallace, Brian Scalabrine  and Glen Davis , and you’ll notice that all five can play more than one position, which allows the Celtics to mix and match “positions” depending on the matchups.
PATIENCE REQUIRED FOR RONDO’S IMPROVED JUMPER
It’s a positive development for the Celtics that Rondo spent part of his summer working with former NBA sharpshooter Mark Price. That’s exactly the kind of extra effort the Celtics have been looking for from the mercurial guard.
Rondo’s work with Price focused on correcting a mechanical flaw, and that will take some time for him to work through. He wasn’t particularly effective, going 1-for-4 from the floor and only 5-for-8 from the free throw line, but in just 17 minutes of action he didn’t get much of a chance to show it off, either.
This obviously is a big October for Rondo as he eyes an extension. The deadline is Oct. 31 to get something done, and while it’s not like he’ll make any more or less bank based on his preseason shooting numbers, the extra work will go a long way toward validating a long-term commitment.