Rajon Rondo had a triple-double, and James missed a crucial free throw with 12.5 seconds left in the Celtics' 85-82 victory over Miami on Sunday. Boston improved to 3-0 against the Heat this season, taking back the top spot in the East and clinching the potential tiebreaker for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
The teams will play again in Miami on April 10.
"They are the defending Eastern Conference champions. You have to go through them, and they ain't going to make it easy," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We understand that this isn't going to be an easy ride for us, and that's where we're at our best."
The Heat eliminated most of a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit and trailed 83-81 with 19 seconds left when they brought the ball in from a timeout and got it to James at the top of the key. He drove on Paul Pierce and drew the foul but missed the first shot, then made the second.
On the ensuing inbound pass, James went into the stands for the ball but merely knocked it to Ray Allen; the Celtics got the ball downcourt to Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who was fouled. Davis hit both foul shots with 6.3 seconds to go, and Mike Miller missed a 3-point attempt in the final seconds that would have sent the game to overtime.
"They're going to be a different team in March and April, the more important months, when we'll probably have to see them again," said Paul Pierce, who was 0-for-10 from the floor and scored just one point. "It gives us the series in case something happens with a tiebreaker."
The Celtics have won 12 of the last 13 games against Miami, including a 4-1 series victory in the first round of last year's playoffs; they then knocked James and the Cleveland Cavaliers out in the next round. James fled to Miami to join Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but the Heat still haven't been able to beat Boston.
"This is classic, typical bigger brothers," Wade said. "You've got to get over the hump. We're getting closer and closer, but we're not there yet. It can happen at any time. It can happen in the playoffs."
Bosh scored 24 with 10 rebounds and James had 22 points for Miami, which had won eight in a row.
Kevin Garnett scored 19 with seven rebounds and Kendrick Perkins had a season-high 15 points for Boston, which snapped a two-game losing streak. Rondo had 11 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds while bothering James enough to force him into four first-half turnovers.
"I thought Rondo just willed us the game," coach Doc Rivers said. "Rondo just took it upon himself that whoever was bringing the ball up he was going to guard and harass. And I thought that changed the game for us."
Pierce had his lowest scoring total since 1999. He said afterward he was bothered by hand and foot injuries and would have an MRI on his left foot Monday.
Miami took a 43-39 lead into halftime, but Boston scored 12 of the first 13 points in the third quarter and opened a seven-point lead on Allen's 3-pointer with 8:31 left. After Wade drove for a layup, Allen hit a 15-footer and Wade was called for a flagrant foul for elbowing Garnett while fighting for position.
While the referees discussed it, the Heat gathered on the court and Rondo lingered outside their huddle until James pushed him away. Allen intervened to pull Rondo away.
Garnett made both free throws, giving the Celtics a 59-46 lead. In all, Boston outscored the Heat 20-3 in the first 5:17 of the third quarter, hitting its first seven shots.
"We definitely dug ourselves a hole," James said. "We can't expect to come into Boston and turn the ball over 12 times in the first half. We also can't afford to come in in the third quarter and not have our motor going and let them go on a 20-3 run to start the quarter. I feel 10 times out of 10 you're going to lose those games."
Davis could only chuckle after taking the ball on the breakaway but leaving his dunk on the front of the rim. He then turned around and ran over Bosh for a foul. ... Allen was presented with the game ball from Thursday night, when he set the NBA's career 3-point record. Allen had two more 3s on Sunday to give him 2,564 in his career, four more than Reggie Miller. ... Pierce was 0-for-5 from 3-point range. He made one of two free throws. ... Boston has not lost three straight games all season.