- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Looking for the X factor in the NBA Finals?
It might just be the T factor.
Just imagine Kobe Bryant or Dwight Howard missing a Finals game through suspension because they've rung up too many technical fouls throughout the playoffs. That first-of-its-kind scenario is actually not hard to imagine, amazingly, because Bryant and Howard are tied for the league lead this postseason with five T's each.
Which means that the two most famous faces in the NBA Finals both sit just two whistles for technicals away from a one-game ban.
Can Bryant get through another whole series without crossing into suspension territory?
Will referees in this series -- amid increasing complaints from players, coaches, fans and the media that passion is being too frequently and strictly squeezed out of the game -- be more lenient than seen in the previous three rounds to help keep Bryant and Howard on the floor?
We're about to find out.
League rules dictate that any player who rings up five techs in the playoffs receives a warning letter from the NBA, with a one-game suspension following the seventh tech and further one-game suspensions for every other technical foul thereafter.
Bryant and Howard have each been hit with six technicals in a span of just 18 and 19 playoff games, respectively. But they've also each had one T rescinded by the league office, which accounts for two of the nine technicals fouls canceled leaguewide during the playoffs. In a 2009 postseason that has spanned 80 games so far, referees have assessed 135 technicals -- 10 of them on coaches -- for an average of 1.69 per game.
Denver's Kenyon Martin had three of his six postseason technicals erased after league review. Besides Bryant and Howard -- whose T for taunting Cleveland's Anderson Varejao in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was promptly revoked the next day -- four other players have seen a T wiped away: Denver's Chris Andersen, Boston's Kendrick Perkins, Dallas' Ryan Hollins and the Lakers' Pau Gasol.
Even at five Ts, though, Bryant and Howard remain in substantial peril. During the regular season, Bryant was whistled for 11 technicals in 82 games, compared to one every three games in the playoffs. Howard had 14 Ts in 79 regular-season games, prompting Magic coach Stan Van Gundy to wonder if his star player has become a "marked man" in the postseason.
"You start to feel," Van Gundy said last week, "like they're looking for it."
In this series, then, managing emotions could well be as pivotal as anything Van Gundy or Lakers coach Phil Jackson could put on a locker-room grease board.
At least Bryant has managed to stay T-free since collecting his fifth technical in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against Denver. "I won't get another one," Bryant vowed that night.
Howard went five games in a row without getting a T to start the Boston series in the second round but would have had three T's alone in the conference finals if his most recent hadn't been overturned. The T spree has led to jokes from Howard during the Cleveland series about needing "duct tape" over his mouth to get through the rest of the playoffs, but also led him to post a frustrated entry on his blog.
"This thing with the Ts is bugging me pretty bad right now, but I can't let it take me away from my focus on helping us get the job done," Howard wrote after Orlando's Game 5 win. "I can't believe that I've had six of them called on me so far ... and some of them have just been crazy. I'm not a dirty player, I don't talk a lot of trash and I don't curse the officials, so I can't figure out why I keep getting them again and again."
Referring to the one-game suspension he served in the first round against Philadelphia after elbowing the Sixers' Samuel Dalembert in the head, Howard added: "... I made a promise to myself that I'd never have that happen again with my elbows. The thought of me having to miss another game is killing me, so I've got to keep my mouth shut and my elbows down."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard must avoid technical fouls in the NBA Finals.