ORLANDO, Fla. -- Meet the NBA's new Rasheed Wallace. Well, not quite. Technically speaking, Dwight Howard is beginning to embrace another pre-eminent distinction along with ranking among the NBA's leaders in rebounders and blocked shots.
"I guess," Howard said Thursday night, "I'm the NBA's bad boy."
Howard, the Orlando Magic's playfully loquacious center, cracked a smile as he made that statement after his team's 112-103 victory against the New York Knicks. But the consequences of Howard's words and actions on the court these days are no longer a laughing matter for the Magic.
Less than two minutes into Thursday's game, Howard was assessed his league-leading 12th technical foul of the season for an outburst after he missed a close shot and had the ball bounce out of bounds off his leg. It marked the fourth time in the past five games that the Magic were hit with a tech as part of the league's mandate to aggressively enforce its "Respect the game" rules.
For some reason, Howard has been on a technical tear this season and is already within striking distance of a one-game suspension once his total reaches 16. If Howard continues at this rate, ol' Sheed might have to come out of retirement to defend his technical foul title.
The league has already repeatedly warned Howard about taking too long to shoot his free throws. Now, his coach strongly suggested that the NBA is now targeting Howard with a quick whistle on technicals -- so much so that punitive measures sometime soon might be inevitable.
"Well, he'll probably end up at some point with a suspension," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "They're [referees] looking for him, there's no question. They make a call on him, they're looking to see his reaction. Other guys get away with stuff. He's not going to. He's going to have to accept that. They're looking for him. Every one of them. So that's the way it's going to be."
Technically, Van Gundy had clearly made his point -- potentially even a costly one that will likely draw some sort of fine from the league. But he wasn't finished. He then drew a distinction between what he believed other ranting players get away with and what Howard was nailed for saying.
"Why he's been the guy to get all the technicals? I don't know," Van Gundy said. "Other guys get away with stuff. He yelled, 'Damn' after he missed a shot. I guess, 'damn' is a technical and 'bull----' is OK, based on what I saw tonight."
Thursday's game was billed as a marquee matchup of two of the best big men in the Eastern Conference, with Howard facing Amare Stoudemire. It was also a showdown of the league's leaders in technical fouls. After Howard was called for his technical with 10:04 left in the first quarter, Stoudemire picked up his 10th tech of the season at the 9:24 mark of the second quarter for taunting at no one in particular after he blocked a Gilbert Arenas layup.
"I told him to get that mess out of here and I got a tech," Stoudemire said. "I've been saying that all year, so I don't understand how you get a technical foul for that. I wasn't showing up the ref and I wasn't talking directly to Gilbert. I'm going to try to call and protest that one. Hopefully, it'll be [reduced to] nine after I protest this one."
Technically, Howard should be safe from reaching Wallace's level of official irritation. Sheed racked up 313 technical fouls over 15 NBA seasons, including a league-record 41 during the 2000-01 season. Howard's total through Thursday night is 59 over seven seasons, which accounts for his previous high of 17 last season and the two that were already rescinded this season.
Teammates and coaches say the level of frustration Howard has shown this season is out of character for the normally joking, wisecracking big man they see in the locker room and off the court. But Howard believes he's been the victim of more non-calls and less patience from game officials.
"You guys watch basketball. You guys see a lot of things we can't comment on," Howard told reporters after he finished with 24 points, 18 rebounds and five fouls against the Knicks. "It's very tough not to get frustrated. I want to be as aggressive as I can. I want to be able to use all the gifts God blessed me to play with. Does it get frustrating? Yes. People might not understand it. They might see it as me complaining or arguing. I just want to go out there and play like everybody else."
Magic point guard Jameer Nelson has played with Howard for seven seasons. He's seen Howard take poundings in the paint for years. He understands his teammate's frustration. But Nelson also knows the Magic (21-12) can't afford to lose Howard to a suspension as they try to maintain their momentum in the aftermath of blockbuster trades. Orlando has won five consecutive games since acquiring Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark.
"He's a happy guy, but when you push the right buttons, everybody's going to get angry," Nelson said. "Because of the rule change, the respect of the game, the emotion at times that we can show is kind of limited. He has to be smarter than what he's been and understand that we need him. We can't afford for him to miss games, especially now."
Howard vowed after the game to keep his count of technical fouls to the dozen he has right now. His logic is that it only makes sense to stop while his infractions match his jersey number. His teammates have added some incentive for Howard to remain quiet on the court.
"I talk to him every day, especially about the dumb technicals," Arenas said. "We have a thing now where he owes the team 200 bucks per tech. It'll go to things we can get for the locker room."
It already has been a costly matter for Howard. Based on the league's schedule of ascending fines for technical fouls, Howard's running tab is estimated at $33,000 after mouthing off Thursday. Still, that's peanuts to a player who will earn more than $16 million in NBA salary alone this season.
But Howard insists he gets the point.
"I've got to stay composed, as hard as it is," Howard said. "I have to do it for my teammates. All that really matters is us getting better and me being a leader. It's tough. I can't do it alone."
Howard also offered an alternative method of voicing his frustrations in future games without actually using his voice at all.
"I'm going to start learning sign language," Howard wisecracked. "I'll just do signs to the bench and to the fans. Just sign language. That way, [referees] can't hear me."