Darryl Dawkins is trying to change his image from man-mountain monster to gentle giant.

It has not been easy for Dawkins, but the Philadelphia 76ers have benefited. The new-look center kept them very much alive Friday in their Eastern Conference semifinal series of the National Basketball Association playoffs with the San Antonio Spurs.

"I've matured," the 6-foot-11 1/2, 250-pound Dawkins said. "I'm a different person."

A subdued, yet still feared Dawkins dominated the fourth quarter, enabling the 76ers to win, 123-115, at the Spectrum. That closed the Spur lead to 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.

Game four will be played today in Philadelphia.

Julius Erving, George Gervin and Larry Kenon have received most of the attention so far in this series, and the Doctor was magnificent Friday. He totaled 39 points, nine rebounds, six assists, four steals and four blocked shots.

But Dawkins provided something Erving couldn't-muscle.

Dawkins scored 14 points and had seven rebounds in the fourth quarter alone.

In one two-minute stretch in the period, he scored 10 straight points, four on offensive rebounds, and grabbed four rebounds in a row. That helped Philadelphia increase a two-point lead to eight points with 1:06 to play.

Dawkins, who likes to talk of a make-believe planet called Lovetron, does appear to have changed. He no longer wears heavy jewelry around his neck, nor does he shave his head. He still has his diamond stud earrings and sometimes wears mismatched basketball shoes, but the 22-year-old, four-year NBA veteran has toned down his antics and controls his temper.

The Spurs slap at the ball and push and hold, and Dawkins felt they were particularly rough on him Friday. Officials were not calling fouls the way he thought they should.

"Instead of starting a fight, though, like I probably would have done in the past, I stayed cool and just played harder." Dawkins said. "It made me want to make every shot and get every rebound."

As a result, the 76ers are still in the playoffs. Dawkins has averaged 21.7 points and nine rebounds in the series.

After losing the first two games in San Antonio, the 76ers feel they finally can contain the Spurs.

In Friday's game, Coach Billy Cunningham put 6-1 rookie Maurice Cheeks on the 6-7 Gervin and 6-9 Bobby Jones, his best defensive player, on the 6-9 Kenon. Gervin and Kenon scored 22 and 24 points, respectively, their lowest of the series.

It also became clear Friday that if the 76ers are to win this series, they will have to turn Erving loose. Since coming to Philadelphia three seasons ago, Erving has tried to play the "team concept" game. Friday he was the Doctor of old operating as he pleased.

"I've always tried to do what I thought was best to help us win," he said. "If that means I have to go to the basket every time I get the ball, then that's what I'll try to do."

The Los Angeles Lakers also won the first game of their playoff series. They needed overtime to do it, but the Lakers closed the Seattle SuperSonic margin to 2-1 in the Western Conference semifinals. Game four will be in Los Angeles this afternoon.

Kareem Abdul - Jabbar scored 32 points as the Lakers won, 118-112, at the Forum. He had eight rebounds, and five assists, and blocked six shots.

The Sonics' top three rebounders, Jack Sikma, Lonnie Shelton and Paul Silas, fouled out late in the game and the Lakers won by scoring nine of their 11 overtime points from the foul line. Abdul-Jabbar had four of them.

"Now that we know we can play with them, they might have a few things they'll have to change," he said. "It gives them a few things to think about, hopefully." Abdul-Jabbar, who has played inspired basketball throughout the playoffs, played the entire 53 minutes Friday.

"We need him to play a lot of minutes," Laker Coach Jerry West said. "We don't like an aggressive game, either, because their people are bigger than ours."

In the other Western Conference semifinal series, 5-11 Kansas City rookie Billy McKinney came off the bench to spark the Kings to a 111-91 victory over Phoenix. The series is even, 1-1, and will resume today in Phoenix.

McKinney ignited a rally that enabled the Kings to increase a nine-point second-quarter lead to 50-27. They coasted from there. Otis Birdsong hit 23 points and Scot Wedman 22. McKinney scored 10 points and had seven assists in only 20 minutes of play.