HARTFORD, Conn. -- Questions have swirled around the Celtics since the final buzzer of their Game 7 loss to Orlando in the Eastern Conference semifinals last June.
Will Kevin Garnett, who underwent offseason knee surgery, return as the MVP-caliber player he's been throughout his career? Did general manager Danny Ainge really try to trade point guard Rajon Rondo? Can newcomer Rasheed Wallace mesh with the team's ubuntu? And chief among them, can the Celtics make it back to the championship heights they reached two years ago?
While it may take all season for those answers to become apparent, the Celtics gave a glimpse of the possibilities with one alley-oop dunk in their 106-90 preseason victory over the Toronto Raptors Wednesday night at the XL Center.
In the third quarter, Rondo lobbed up a pass toward the basket, and Garnett sprung from the floor, (formerly?) bad knee and all, and slammed it down, bringing the 10,117 in attendance to their feet.
Garnett would slam a few more home in a 32-point quarter that saw the Celtics running, creating and defending at high, perhaps even championship, levels.
"That was nice," said coach Doc Rivers. "Unexpected, actually, because Kevin got kneed in the calf in the first half so I didn't think he was running well and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he becomes the old Kevin.
"That's the only thing, really, that you can see that he hasn't done, and to see that, that's really big."
Garnett made clear in his postgame meeting with the media that he didn't want to talk about his knee. The spring in his step on the court said enough.
Although apparently still not up to full speed, Garnett was well enough to score 16 points, grab six rebounds and block two shots. Off the court, he was his usual fiery self, barking from the bench and displaying that patented KG intensity.
"You see him getting up and down the court," said Paul Pierce, who finished with 17 points in 26 minutes. "He's really getting off the ground a lot better. It's good to see him when he's above the rim. We haven't seen it in a while. We've seen flashes of it, and we got a good chance to see it a few times tonight."
The Big Three of Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen sat out Tuesday night's game against the Nets, watching as Rondo ran the show and came with one rebound of a triple-double.
And despite a relatively slow start Wednesday, Garnett set the pace for the rest of the offense and sparked the chemistry on display with Pierce and Allen. Each of the Big Three equaled or exceeded their preseason highs for minutes played.
"It's really early," Garnett said. "Right now rhythm and chemistry [are important]. Understanding Marquis [Daniels]. Them getting acclimated with Eddie [House] and Lester [Hudson] and all the guys that are here. We're, at this point, trying to put it all together."
"Oh, it's just terrific," Rivers said of the team's chemistry. "You can just see it. I mean, the guys are really close. They kind of understand where they're at as far as rotations and stuff."
But the Celtics, who improved to 4-1 with two preseason games left, still have a ways to go before their season opener at home against the Cavaliers.
All the players know that. And if they don't, Rivers is there to remind them. Rivers said he has a checklist of about 12 things left to work on throughout the remaining seven practices.
On the top of that list?
"Transition D," he said. "That was the first thing at the beginning of the season. We've kind of slipped a little bit on that, so we've got to get back to that."
The Celtics struggled in the first half against the duo of Chris Bosh, who reportedly put on 20 pounds of muscle this offseason, and Andrea Bargnani, both of whom have a rare blend of size and athleticism.
Although last night's performance (21 points) indicated Bosh's hard work in the offseason already is paying off, Garnett couldn't notice the difference. Or, at least he wasn't willing to admit as much.
"I was not eyeing Bosh's body," Garnett said, a sly grin scrawling across his face. "That's a little odd question. He looks crisper, looks stronger. But that's Bosh. That's why they win. He's a big part of that."
But in the second half, the Celtics made him a nonfactor, limiting him to 1 point after intermission.
Garnett wasn't willing to make any predictions on whether this could be the team's best year defensively since his arrival in 2007, but acknowledged they have the talent.
Despite all the positive signs on the offensive end Wednesday, Rivers knows Boston can only get its foot in the Finals door through its defense.
"I think we can be not a good defensive team, a great defensive team," Rivers said. "And if we win, it will be because of that defense."