The Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz spent Tuesday afternoon's interview sessions covering the usual subjects: homecourt advantage, rebounding, defense and, as always, officiating. Then there were the traditional calls to arms. "We've done our job and they did their job and now it's time to step up and . . . yak . . . yak . . . yak."

It works like this: A game is played, the players cool down for 10 minutes and the media come in for interviews. With rare exception, that's when the rhetoric begins - a litany of all the bad calls, non-calls, future calls. The same continues during off days until the next game is played. Then it begins again.It's as ancient as the life cycle. Sunrise, sunset. Game, talk. Talk, game.

In case you hadn't already figured this out, the aforementioned playoff blather isn't without a purpose. First, it's good for filling newspapers and air time. Second, it serves to send messages.

This year's playoff war of words actually began the day the regular season ended. The Rockets were just finishing up their year when reporters asked Clyde Drexler if the Jazz might "panic" in the playoffs. Drexler replied, Hmmmmm, now that they mentioned it, that's what happened in 1995. Sure it could happen again.

The propaganda machine was already up and running. Let the head games begin.

As the teams move into tonight's Game 3 at the Compaq Center, it's business as usual. Since the start, the Jazz and Rockets have been trying to talk themselves into any edge they can get. The way these guys use words, they could put Cyrano DeBergerac out of business. Prior to Game 1, the Rockets were busy trying to convince the Jazz they might lose their cool after earning the homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs - and it worked. The Jazz promptly lost Game 1. During and after the game, the Jazz complained about the number of no-calls. To no one's surprise, they got more calls to go their way in Game 2. And though the Rockets got physical again, they were also penalized for it: four technicals, a flagrant foul and one ejection.

After Game 2, the Rockets griped about illegal screens, while the Jazz took offense at what they considered dirty tactics by the Rockets.

Is the First Amendment great, or what?

If this all seems slightly contrived, that's because it is. This isn't just stream-of-consciousness blabbing. Well, maybe in the case of Charles Barkley, but otherwise there's a point to all this. Thus, when the Rockets' Kevin Willis was asked on Tuesday if it's the mental or physical part of the game that most concerns him, he said, "I don't think the physical part is our problem. If we control our emotions and don't get rattled, we'll be all right. The physical part, we can battle with anyone in the league. They've got one physical player - Karl."

Translated from sportspeak, the message is this: He isn't scared of the Jazz or Malone.

While Willis was busy making his point, teammate Eddie Johnson - who has seen 42 playoff games in his illustrious career - had his own theory on pre-game and post-game talk.

"It's not psyching out the players. I like to think that because of the experience, because of going through the wars, you wouldn't get rattled by that (talk). I would think a young team would get rattled by that. I would like to think that experienced players don't get rattled by the fans and don't get rattled by conversations by (other) players."

In Johnson's estimation, the people who are affected are the ones making all the calls.

"It's only psyching out the referees," Johnson continued. "It's not psyching out the players. All that's doing is sending an indirect message to the refs. Because the refs read the papers. I think that's one of the negatives. I think they shouldn't be allowed to read the papers during the season. Treat them like a jury. During the season they can't read papers and they can't watch games. That's all coaches and players do - they try to send messages indirectly to the referees through the newspapers."

So maybe the Rockets are playing dirty. Maybe the Jazz are getting away with too much holding, too many sneaky fouls, too many illegal screens. What are self-respecting teams supposed to do? Write Dear Abby? Phone their Congressmen? File a lawsuit? Of course not. All they have to do is talk. The message will get out.