Minutes after Kansas City had lost the third game of the NBA Western Conference final series to the Houston Rockets Friday night, King Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons toured his locker room.

He stopped briefly in front of each player. "Good job, Good job tonight," he would say. Or, "Way to work, way to hustle out there." Fitzsimmons is not one for showing a brave face when is he is down. He was not discouraged.

"If they had blown us out the way it looked like they were going to, maybe I'd be more upset," Fitzsimmons said. "I don't believe in moral victories or anything. But I do believe our guys believe they can win in this place. And we have to do that Sunday."

Sunday at 3:35 p.m. (WDVM-TV-9), Fitzsimmons, with his Kings trailing in the best-of-seven series, 2-1, will have a chance to see if his players can come back against the Rockets in the Summit before 16,121 vocal fans.

"It's a must game for them. They don't want to be down 3-1," said Calvin Murphy, whose 23 points Friday led the Rockets. "But it's a must game for us, too. We don't want to give them the home-court advantage."

"We want this over with quickly," said Billy Paultz. "The Kings are the kind of team that, if you let them stay alive, they'll find a way to beat you eventually.

"They aren't one of those teams that hits the home run. They don't have anyone who jumps over the backboard and slams the ball down and makes the crowd go wild. They don't do anything spectacular. They just come down, throw four or five good passes and get a good shot. It may not be exciting to the average fan, but it's effective. Very effective."

Paultz, 32, has played a key role in each game of this series. His 20 points Friday were crucial on a night when Rocket superstar Moses Malone, double- and triple-teamed all night, scored on only five of 17 field goals and totaled only 12 points.

Defensively, Paultz played a different kind of key role. Houston Coach Del Harris decided early to take Paultz off Reggie King and put Malone on him, a move that helped the Rockets build an 18-point lead.

Malone, who Harris says is an underrated defensive player, slowed King by denying him the ball. "Once he gets the ball, it's very hard to stop his shot because it's so quick," Malone said. "I tried to lean on him, use my size, keep him away from the basketball. If you can ever let up on him, he'll beat you. He does his thing. We have to keep doing ours."

In many ways, King personifies this Kansas City team. It is the NBA's version of blue-collar basketball: guys making $200,000 a year who are considered drudge workers by many of their peers.

"With us, every game is a real battle," King guard Ernie Grunfield said.

"There's no cruising, no way to get by on talent. We honestly believe in this series -- like with Phoenix -- if we keep it alive long enough, we can win. Match us up individually, maybe not, but this isn't a playground. We believe we can win."

That belief may be as important as any jump shot or rebound the Kings will get in this series. Friday, the Rockets played well most of the night but still needed three clutch jump shots by Robert Reid in the final two minutes to hold off the Kings.

That's why Fitzsimmons wasn't moaning after the loss. "We do things on this team the hard way, I guess," he said, smiling. "Now we know we have got to win Sunday or we're looking at an almost impossible job."

"Maybe," Grunfeld said with a laugh, "we have them right where we want them."

Does TV dictate to the NBA? Consider this: the first three games of this series began at 9:05 p.m. Central Time (the normal tipoff in both Kansas City and Houston is 7:35) because CBS did not want the final score on the late news before their tape of the game geban. Also, consider this: Friday, the buzzer went off ending warmups with a minute still on the clock.

"What's going on?," Fitzsimmons asked referee Jess Kersey.

"I don't know," Kersey answered. "The TV guys just told us that's it; get started."