The Miami Heat, for the second time this season, played a strong game at the Boston Garden on Sunday night.
As was the case in late December, the Heat was not rewarded for the effort.
Miami dug out of a 10-point hole in the fourth quarter yet the Celtics got some late heroics from Isaiah Thomas, hit some big free throws down the stretch and clamped down defensively in the final minutes to beat Miami 112-108.
With the win, the Celtics pulled into a virtual tie with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Miami continues to hold the eighth spot — so, Sunday may not be the Heat’s final game in Boston this season after all.
“That’s competition. They have a very good team,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We got down 10 but there are a lot of ebbs and flows to a game. They made the big plays down the stretch. … You have to give them credit; the made more plays to win the game.
“It felt like the last time we were up here.”
The Heat, which lost by three in its previous visit just before the New Year, held a lead for almost all of the opening half only to watch the Celtics storm out of the gate and tie things the score not even a minute into the third.
Miami went ice cold in the period and the Celtics took advantage and built a 10-point lead heading into the fourth.
The Heat not only made it a game but had chances to tie or take the lead in the final minute.
Miami trimmed the Boston lead to two when Willie Reed slammed home a delivery from James Jones with 7:11 remaining.
Moments later, Goran Dragic drained a 3-pointer to give the Heat its first lead since midway through the third.
The two teams then traded leads with Boston taking a three-point lead at 104-101 with 2:53 left on a pair of free throws from Thomas (game-high 30 points) as the sold-out Garden crowd chanted ‘MVP.’
Thomas then extended the lead with a lay-up just before the two-minute mark.
A pair of free throws from Marcus Smart, including one awarded on a Hassan Whiteside goaltend, with 20.1 seconds left gave the Celtics a four-point lead Miami could not overcome.
The Heat got 24 points from Tyler Johnson and 20 from James Johnson as both provided a spark at different points.
“They were terrific,” Spoelstra said. “I thought they were great with their competitive spirit. Everyone was in that locker room. No one has anything to regret from a standpoint of effort. This is what happens with competition; they have something to say about it as well.”
Boston, which has won its past seven at home, took the initial lead but Miami held the edge the remainder of the first half.
The Heat built a lead as big as 15 in the second quarter but watched the Celtics trim their deficit to five by halftime.
The Celtics owned Miami in the third as the Heat shot just 29.6 percent from the floor and was 1-for-10 from 3-point range.
Boston, which shot 56.5 percent and hit all three attempts from long range, took advantage of Miami’s offensive struggles and took a 10-point lead by the end of the quarter after Jaylen Brown beat the shot clock with a 17-foot jumper with 5.7 seconds remaining.
The Heat, which has now lost its past two and three of four, heads to Detroit for an important showdown with the Pistons as Miami leads Stan Van Gundy’s squad by one full game in the playoff race.
Miami’s lead on the Bulls is one-half game after Chicago beat six-seeded Milwaukee and jumped Detroit to take ninth in the east.
“There’s nothing you can do about it now,” said Whiteside, who played with a stitched-up hand and a sore ankle he rested in a mop bucket full of ice water afterward, scored 19 points while drawing 15 rebounds.
“We are looking on to Detroit. We have to focus on them now. We just have to get some wins down the stretch.”
The Heat ended up 0-4 against the Celtics this season and 0-2 at the Garden as the Celtics continued Boston’s home dominance over South Florida’s pro teams.
The Dolphins, Marlins, Heat and Panthers are a combined 7-39 in the Boston area since 2010 – including the Celtics’ 6-2 home record against the Heat in three playoff series from 2010-12.