SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Dwight Howard(notes) could only watch helplessly on a television in his Florida home as the Orlando Magic lost to the Portland Trail Blazers without him. With the Magic precariously clinging to the Eastern Conference's fourth seed – and still carrying hopes of moving up in the standings – Howard knew this loss was on him. And he also knows his team can ill afford for him to spend another night under house arrest.
Howard served his one-game suspension against the Blazers after picking up his 16th technical foul of the season. But what alarms the Magic more is that with 18 games remaining, the NBA's best center will be forced to sit out one more game for every two additional technicals he receives.
"There really isn't much I can do about it," Howard told Yahoo! Sports after practice Tuesday afternoon. "For the most part, I don't complain to the refs about the fouls they call on me or anything like it. I've really gotten upset this year over people [fouling me hard]. It's OK to foul me – I'm not worried about that – but sometimes it gets a little too much.
"I think I've done a great job of not retaliating like I've wanted to the whole year. I got to keep my emotions inside and don't let it affect the way I play."
Howard has been fined a total of $50,000 for his 16 technicals this season. He also lost about $150,000 in salary for missing the Portland game. Once the playoffs begin, Howard's technical count goes back to zero, with a suspension not coming until he gets his seventh.
The problem for the Magic is keeping Howard on the court until the playoffs. With playoff position riding on the outcome of every game, another suspension could potentially mean the difference between the Magic opening the postseason on the road instead of at home.
Howard accepts the initial suspension for his 16th technical. What he doesn't understand is why the league will continue to punish him after just two more.
"It's just too much," he said. "You get suspended. You get techs. They should stop right there. Now every two techs? They should start over.
"It's a long season. I'm sure there is going to come a time where I might get another tech. I don't want to get techs, but the way the game is called, it's bound to happen."
Because Howard is so much bigger and stronger than most of his opponents, he often is subjected to harder and more frequent fouls. Shaquille O'Neal(notes) long complained that he was subjected to a different standard of rules – namely, that teams could hack on him as much as they pleased while the slightest touch from him resulted in a foul – because of his size. The Magic believe the same is true for Howard.
Still, Magic general manager Otis Smith has spoken with Howard ever since he came into the league about the importance of him not retaliating. Howard's 16th technical came when he flailed his elbows after a foul from the Chicago Bulls' Kyle Korver(notes).
"It frustrates you because most of the opposing team's approach is to pull, frustrate and get him out of the game," Smith said. "Usually, their centers aren't as important as our center is to us – that would be my game plan if I'm with the opposing team. He has to understand that's usually their game plan, so he has to keep his cool."
For Howard, there has been just one fleeting benefit to his technical issues: He's been subjected to fewer questions about whether he'll leave the Magic when he has the opportunity to become a free agent in the summer of 2012. For a franchise that was scarred for years by Shaq's decision to leave Orlando for the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard's future will remain a topic of concern until he either signs a contract extension with the Magic after the league negotiates a new labor agreement – or he leaves.
Howard has already grown tired of the speculation, which only increased after Howard questioned his teammates' effort two weeks ago following a loss to the Sacramento Kings. In the aftermath of LeBron James(notes) departing from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat and Carmelo Anthony(notes) pushing for a trade from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks, Howard said his own potential free agency has already become "too much" of a circus.
"Every other day, I'm going somewhere else," Howard said. "It's not fair to the fans in Orlando because they feel like I'm trying to leave and they are hearing all this stuff on TV about me doing what Shaq did. And I don't think it's fair because I never came out and said I don't want to be in Orlando.
"It does annoy me because I'm only concerned about winning a championship with Orlando. I never thought about leaving here.
"When I go out, people say, 'Don't leave. You need to hurry up and sign.' There is no contract for me to sign right now. So I don't like that."
For now, Howard's only goal is to stay on the court and keep the Magic winning. The Magic trail the Heat by three games for the No. 3 seed and the Southeast Division title. If the playoffs started today, the Magic would play the Atlanta Hawks, with a potential matchup against the top-seeded Boston Celtics in the second round.
"I think we have a legitimate shot at catching the Heat and probably the Bulls," Howard said. "It's just a matter of who gets hot at the right time. I think some teams have been really hot for a while, and you really fizzle out when you've been playing hot basketball the whole season. I don't think there is a team that's been hot the whole season and ends up winning a championship. It's about being hot at the right time."
Prior to picking up his 16th technical on Friday, Howard hadn't had one since Feb. 6. That's one reason why Magic coach Stan Van Gundy is optimistic that his All-Star center will avoid another suspension.
"His problem was earlier in the year," Van Gundy said. "His problem was the first month, month and a half of the season. That's where he got the technicals. Over the last six to eight weeks, he's only gotten a couple. He realized the problem, he corrected the problem.
"Unfortunately, because the year got off to a bad start, even though he hasn't been getting technical fouls much at all [lately], this is when it hits. It brings up the issue again where people say, 'Oh my God. This guy is out of control.' He's toned it down."
Howard also understands what's riding on his actions for the rest of the season.
"My teammates understand that I wouldn't [purposely] do anything to put them in a bad position," he said. "They understand how the game is being officiated."