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The 2012 Celtics-Sixers Playoff Series Was a Rock Fight Before It Was Fodder for ‘Uncut Gems’

The 2012 Eastern Conference semifinal was an up-and-down series for Kevin Garnett, which made it a perfect dramatic structure for the Safdie brothers’ film

Getty Images/A24/Ringer illustration

Editor’s note, May 25, 2020: This was originally published during Uncut Gems’ theatrical run. We’re resurfacing it now as it begins streaming on Netflix.

When directors Josh and Benny Safdie landed Kevin Garnett to play himself alongside Adam Sandler in their new film, Uncut Gems, they needed to orient the NBA-specific part of their story around a string of high-stakes games in which the future Hall of Famer played well, but also experienced some valleys along with his peaks. “The narrative of the story revolved around a good game, bad game, good game,” Josh Safdie told The Ringer’s Alan Siegel.

The Eastern Conference semifinal series between Garnett’s Boston Celtics and the upstart Philadelphia 76ers wasn’t the most dramatic thing about the 2012 postseason. That spring also featured the KD-Russ-Harden Thunder ripping off four straight victories over the vaunted Spurs in what looked, at the time, like a changing of the guard within the NBA, the ACL tear that completely changed Derrick Rose’s career, and LeBron James winning his first championship. Celtics-Sixers fit the bill here, though.

It was a tense, grimy, seven-game rock fight. Boston won the series while scoring 99.2 points per 100 possessions, a rate of offensive efficiency that would’ve ranked dead last in the league in six of the past 10 seasons. (Shouts to the Process-era Sixers, who were trying to be that bad, and the 2011-12 Bobcats, who were not, but still were.) And, like Uncut Gems itself—at least, according to the people I’ve spoken to who have actually seen it, which I haven’t—it also featured a hell of a performance by Garnett.

Uncut Gems isn’t Garnett’s first film role. As a teenager, KG made an uncredited cameo in 1994’s Blue Chips; two years later, he played a young Wilt Chamberlain in HBO’s Rebound: The Legend of Earl “The Goat” Manigault. It is his first full-fledged acting performance, though, and one that asks him to play the role to which he is best suited: an almost unbelievably intense professional basketball player who is completely committed to victory, and willing to fully invest himself in anything that might help him gain and maintain an edge. Like, say, a “mysterious, seemingly priceless Ethiopian opal” that he becomes convinced might have a positive impact on his play.

This tracks. KG developed more than a few lasting superstitions during his career. “Shirt Tuck” and “Fists and Chalk.” Needing his warm-up pants to hit the ground a certain way before a game, and needing the same ball boy to throw him passes during every workout—even, according to former coach Dwane Casey, if the poor young man was sick. There were also the pre-game PB&Js and, just before tip-off, his iconic headbutt session with the padding on the basket stanchion.

“Having something that you believe in and is giving you something back, I connected with that,” Garnett said at a recent screening of the film.

You’d believe that Garnett might have been looking for a little something extra in that 2012 postseason. Boston had gone 39-27 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, finishing fourth in the East behind the Bulls, Heat, and Indiana Pacers. Everybody expected Chicago to charge past the eighth-seeded Sixers in Round 1, setting up a highly anticipated matchup against the former champion C’s, and the possibility of a heavyweight battle with the Big Three Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. But then Rose went down, and the upstart Sixers pounced, finishing the wounded Bulls in six games behind a breakout performance by a 21-year-old point guard named Jrue Holiday.

Suddenly, all that stood between the Celtics and another shot at a Heat team that had gentleman’s-swept them out of 2011’s second round was a young Philly squad whose only rotation players older than 25 were an in-his-prime Andre Iguodala and post-Achilles-tear Elton Brand. (And as good as Miami had looked, the first game of the second round presented an opening, when Chris Bosh suffered an abdominal strain that put him on the shelf indefinitely.) For the 35-year-old Garnett, 34-year-old Paul Pierce, and 36-year-old Ray Allen—the trio that had ushered in Boston’s basketball renaissance and won the 2008 title, but saw ill-timed injuries scuttle their championship bids in the next three postseasons—2012 seemed like their last, best shot at a second ring.

But all the miles the C’s had traveled along the way were starting to add up. Pierce had sprained his MCL during Boston’s first-round win over the Hawks; his lack of lift and burst, plus Iguodala’s dogged defense, limited him to just 40.2 percent shooting for the series. Allen had missed most of the final month of the season and the first two games of the Atlanta series, with bone spurs in his right ankle. He would need offseason surgery to remove them. Until he could get it, he was either coming off the bench or acting as a decoy in the starting lineup. He averaged 8.9 points per game against Philly, shooting just 38.3 percent from the field.

Boston ran neck-and-neck with Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls for the league lead in points allowed per possession that season; they had the defense to stifle the Sixers. But with Pierce, Allen, and wings Mickael Pietrus and Avery Bradley all ailing, the Celtics needed to find enough points of their own against an athletic, smart, and hungry Philly squad. So KG sized up Philly’s bigs—especially Spencer Hawes—dusted off that high-arcing elbow jumper, and went to work.

Garnett poured in 29 points on 12-for-20 shooting in Game 1, but Boston needed clutch late jumpers by Pierce and Rajon Rondo to escape with a 92-91 win in a game that Philadelphia led for more than 42 minutes. Undeterred by letting a chance to usurp home-court advantage slip through their fingers, the 76ers came right back and threw another punch in Game 2, grinding out an 82-81 win punctuated by an acrobatic Evan Turner layup with 40 seconds left—and a moving-screen call on KG with 10 seconds to go—to knot the series at one game apiece.

The Sixers could’ve seized control of the series at home in Game 3. Garnett had other ideas.

It wasn’t a solo mission—Pierce got well to the tune of 24 points (albeit on 6-for-17 shooting) and 12 boards, while Rondo chipped in 23 with 14 dimes. But Garnett, again, looked more like the 25-year-old version of himself than the gray-bearded model, popping for a game-high 27 points on 12-for-17 shooting with 13 rebounds and four assists; Boston outscored the Sixers by 27 in his 30 minutes of floor time, and cruised to a 107-91 win.

Philly would get even in Game 4, coming back from an 18-point second-half deficit with a second-half blitz capped by some Iguodala daggers. The Celtics might’ve taken a commanding 3-1 lead … had Garnett not turned in his first rough outing of the playoffs, with nine points on 3-for-12 shooting with seven turnovers, and Boston giving up on running its offense through him. (There’s that “good game, bad game, good game” narrative the Safdies were looking for.)

Back in Boston, the Celtics earned their second blowout of the series, a 101-85 thrashing thanks to a career-high 27 points from steady forward Brandon Bass—18 of which came in a third quarter that saw the Celtics take control. After a dodgy offensive foul call against Garnett for using his off arm to clear out Hawes on a shot attempt, the TD Garden crowd got loud, and KG and the Celtics seemed to get pissed, ripping 10 straight points to start a 25-10 run that tilted the game.

After the win, Garnett insisted he didn’t remember the play with Hawes, or any particular change in the crowd. He did, however, try to explain how the energy of the Boston fans felt to him, comparing “this goddamned crowd” to an outlet he could plug into: “I feel like every minute I look up, I see my family, I see people yelling, I see the drunk fat guy—I can’t decipher one [minute] from the other.”

Away from that energy source—this whole “mystical gem” idea is starting to make more sense—the C’s sputtered in Game 6. Holiday led five 76ers in double figures, the Sixers held the misfiring visitors below 20 points in three of four quarters, and they white-knuckled an 82-75 win in front of the Philly faithful that Garnett had made a point of calling “fairweather fans” after Game 5. Just as they had 30 years earlier, the Celtics and 76ers would play a Game 7 on the parquet in Boston. This time, though, the Sixers came up short. The Celtics weathered the loss of Pierce to a sixth foul with 4:16 to go thanks to some huge late buckets by Rondo, and held on for an 85-75 win to eliminate Philly and move on to face the Heat.

Garnett averaged 19.7 points and 11 rebounds per game in the series, taking 21 more shots than any other Celtic and making 50.4 percent of them. While Doc Rivers was fond of saying that Boston had become Rondo’s team during that ’11-12 season, it was still KG who shouldered the scoring load and captained the defense during that playoff run, and who came up with huge outings in games 3, 4, and 5 of the conference finals to push the Heat to the brink of elimination. LeBron responded with the signature performance of his career to that point, and Miami dispatched Boston in seven games. The Celtics would win 41 games the next season and get eliminated in the first round; about two months later, Garnett and Pierce were Nets.

“I’d die out here if I had to, and that’s real talk,” Garnett said in a radio interview during the Sixers series. “I have no life at this point. I go home, get treatment, come back in here, study tape, film. No life at all. This is what it is.”

As it turns out, Garnett was always a Method actor. It just took a while for someone to put a script in his hand.