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Lakers Hit on 21.5, as Nuggets Go Bust : Pro basketball: Divac bails L.A. out in opener, 98-96, after Denver erases 18-point deficit.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Lakers opened with three aces.

They got a team-high 26 points from Cedric Ceballos, despite seven-of-18 shooting, and 24 points and seven assists from Nick Van Exel. But the biggest contribution came as they almost folded, a 12-foot baseline jumper with 21.5 seconds left from Vlade Divac to cap his double-double and supply a 98-96 victory over the Denver Nuggets.

There was no full house at the Forum--16,345--only a lot of uneasy people who watched the Lakers squander an 18-point third-quarter cushion.

Denver guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf finished with 32 points and 13 assists and forward Bryant Stith scored 15 of his 22 in the second half.

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The big lead midway through the third quarter was gone by 8:50 of the fourth, courtesy a 28-8 run by the Nuggets. Abdul-Rauf supplied the final two daggers, hitting back-to-back three-point baskets for an 80-78 Denver advantage, part of a stretch in which he scored 11 of his team’s 13 points.

It was tied as late as 96-96 with 35 seconds remaining, at which point the Lakers called timeout. They got the ball in Van Exel’s hands, and he penetrated down the lane, then passed off to Divac on the right side.

Divac, en route to 16 points and 10 rebounds, connected from there. That held up as the short-handed Lakers withstood the Nuggets’ three shots on the final possession, misses by Stith, Abdul-Rauf and, finally, Dale Ellis with about two seconds remaining.

With a makeshift starting lineup of Cedric Ceballos at shooting guard and George Lynch at small forward because of Anthony Peeler’s strained shoulder, the Lakers were good enough to overcome themselves while building a 58-45 advantage at halftime. That is, the 52.6% from the field offset the 15 turnovers--their average for a game last season.

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The lead reached 18 on a couple of occasions in the third quarter. The second time, with 6:53 remaining, came when Van Exel’s long lead pass hit Ceballos in stride streaking down the right side. It became a slam dunk and a 70-52 cushion, prompting a Nugget timeout.

By the start of the final quarter, however, Denver had closed the gap to 10 points, 78-68, and the Nuggets scored the first 12 points of the fourth quarter.


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