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EXCELLENT VAN EXEL HEXES SPURS

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Nick Van Exel scored 25 points as the Los Angeles Lakers took advantage of a miserable start by San Antonio on Friday night for a 92-85 victory to cut the Spurs' playoff lead to 2-1.

Game 4 of the best-of-7 Western Conference semifinals is Sunday at the Forum.The Spurs dug themselves a deep hole in the opening quarter with poor shooting - 5-for-20 - and even poorer rebounding. The Lakers, who shot 48 percent from the field in the period, outrebounded the Spurs 18-8 and led 28-11.

The closest the Spurs got was 64-58 in the third quarter, but the Lakers again pulled away and led comfortably, although San Antonio moved within seven points at the final buzzer on a long 3-pointer.

Cedric Ceballos, who led Los Angeles in scoring in the regular season but averaged just 4.5 points in the first two playoff games against San Antonio, came to life with 22 points in Game 3.

David Robinson, the only Spur who didn't seem to be sluggish, scored 34 points and had 13 rebounds. Doc Rivers and Sean Elliot had 16 points each for San Antonio.

Van Exel also had eight assists and Vlade Divac scored 14 points and had 13 rebounds for the Lakers.

The Spurs closed to 64-58 on Robinson's baseline jumper with 61/2 minutes left in the third quarter, but the Lakers built their cushion back to 76-65 heading into the final period and San Antonio got no closer than the final margin.

The Spurs finished with a 46-43 rebounding edge, but shot just 38 percent to the Lakers' 44 percent.

The Lakers had let the Spurs off the hook in Game 2, squandering a chance to win in regulation when Vlade Divac missed two free throws with 4.6 seconds left and the game tied. San Antonio dominated in overtime and won 97-90. The Spurs, who had the NBA's best regular-season record, won the opening game 110-94.

This time, the Lakers seemed in control almost from the start.

San Antonio came back from its dismal first quarter to pull within 53-43 at halftime, with Robinson leading the way with 14 points in the second period.

The Spurs then trimmed the deficit from 18 points to 10 in the final three minutes before halftime, with Doc Rivers scoring six points in the last two minutes to lead the charge.