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Pierce shines start to finish

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty

Paul Pierce helped fuel Boston's Game 3 victory over the Heat.BOSTON -- On Friday, Paul Pierce deemed himself an invaluable fourth-quarter asset to the Boston Celtics, saying, "Paul Pierce being in the game in the fourth quarter is always going to help the Celtics." But on Saturday, it was his effort in the first quarter of the Celtics' 97-81 Game 3 victory that helped set the tone for a Boston team that was in desperate need of a fast start with its back against the wall against the Miami Heat.

Pierce scored 12 of his series-high 27 points in the opening frame, establishing an aggressiveness that the rest of his teammates fed off as the C's built a 27-21 lead over the opening 12 minutes, marking the first time in the series that they led at the end of the first quarter.

The Heat hit the Celtics in the first quarters of the series' first two games on South Beach, and Boston, put back on its heels by Miami's consecutive blitzes, was forced to play catch-up in both contests, largely without the full services of its captain. Pierce was ejected in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and was limited by a strained left Achilles for much of Game 2. But coming into Saturday's game, the Celtics knew they needed to be the aggressors, and before Miami could even take a full-hearted swing, Pierce struck first. Then he struck again and again.

"I thought Paul Pierce set the tone at the beginning of the game," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers afterward. "Just the force he was playing with. And it was what we talked about, [all we talked about] is Miami has played with force. And that's what they should do. But we haven't. And today there was a stretch where both teams were playing with force and I was fine with that. But I thought Paul set the tone for our entire team to start the game with the force that he played with. I thought that was a great message for the entire team."

Pierce put the Celtics on the board first by rifling a stepback jumper at the free throw line over LeBron James, and three minutes later he lulled Mike Bibby into a foul while attempting a 3-pointer from the left wing that resulted in an extended trip to the free throw line. Shortly after, the Celtics broke out in transition and Pierce parked himself in the left corner, accepted a pass from Ray Allen, and knocked down a 3-pointer, giving Boston a quick 10-5 advantage.

Within the first three minutes Pierce was helping the Celtics do everything they were guilty of not doing in Games 1 and 2. He was helping the offense flow with more precision, by scoring himself and getting others involved, like Kevin Garnett, who he fed for a slam dunk just minutes into the game. He was getting to the free throw line, a spot on the floor Miami absolutely dominated in the first two games. And he was setting a necessary standard by hurrying up the floor on fast break opportunities, signaling to his teammates that the subpar transition efforts in Games 1 and 2 were not going to be accepted for a third straight time.

Pierce's left wing jump shot off of a feed from Rajon Rondo with just over three minutes left in the quarter gave the Celtics a 10-point edge, before they eventually settled for a six-point advantage, capping off a first-quarter effort that greatly outshined its first two predecessors.

And the tone Pierce set would last for the remainder of the game. Even when the Heat responded in the second frame and assumed a two-point halftime edge, Pierce and the Celtics kept fighting. Rivers was one of the first to admit that the Heat had simply played harder than the Celtics in Games 1 and 2, but no player was showing more effort than Pierce five minutes into the third when he poked the ball away from James in the back court and dove headfirst to the floor to corral it. He added nine more points in the third quarter, burying two crucial 3-pointers that helped the Celtics outscore the Heat 28-15 in the frame and take an 11-point advantage into the fourth quarter, despite losing Rondo to a dislocated left elbow.

All the while, Pierce was shadowing James on the defensive end, and with the help of his teammates (Jeff Green in particular, who displayed admirable defensive chops at times), managed to hold Miami's star forward to just 15 points on 6-of-16 shooting -- a figure the Celtics will gladly accept in this series.

And, ultimately, Pierce, who also finished with five rebounds and five assists, ended up making good on Friday's fourth-quarter assessment. Him being in the game down the stretch was good for Boston, as he buried two more crucial 3-point field goals in the final two minutes, when there was a hint of one last Miami run in the air.

After all, it only seemed appropriate for Pierce to help finish the fight that he made sure began in the Celtics' favor.

Greg Payne is a student intern for ESPNBoston.com