HOUSTON -- For Dwight Howard, a return to the dominant form from his years with the Orlando Magic always centered on good health. All the talk of petulance and immaturity, attributes that soured his run with the Los Angeles Lakers, might prove misguided.
On Wednesday night at Toyota Center, Howard appeared reborn mentally and physically in his first game with his new team, matching his single-game high of 26 rebounds to pace the Houston Rockets to a 96-83 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats. The game was the season opener for both teams.
Howard added 17 points and showcased the spring in his step that earned him the reputation as the best center in the league. The narrative of him being happy in Houston is born out of his choosing the Rockets in free agency, but Howard being fit is as vital.
"I'm a lot healthier than I was last season, and that comes from all the work that I put in this summer to get my body back right," Howard said. "My teammates needed a rebounder (and for me) to be a dominant force on both ends. I'm healthier, and I'm able and willing to do it."
Howard teamed with guard James Harden, who scored 21 points despite battling back issues, to carry the Rockets down the stretch. With the stubborn Bobcats (0-1) refusing to wilt, Howard threw down an alley-oop dunk off a Harden pass for a 78-68 lead with 6:21 left.
Harden followed with a driving layup 27 seconds later after Howard corralled a defensive rebound. When Harden assisted Howard for another dunk with 3:41 to play, the Rockets held their largest lead at 86-72.
"You're talking about an elite perimeter player and an elite post player, and they were both playing to their strengths," Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said. "They played to their strengths and we weren't able to hold them when we needed to."
Facing sky-high expectations, the Rockets saw the opener take a sour turn when Harden retreated to the locker room in the second quarter with back tightness. Point guard Patrick Beverley departed soon thereafter with bruised ribs and did not return.
Harden reentered with just over eight minutes remaining in the first half but looked out of sorts. Luckily for the Rockets, Garcia and Howard teamed to shoulder the early load.
Garcia scored 11 points in the second period, connecting on a trio of 3-pointers that helped the Rockets turn an early deficit into a 38-29 lead. Garcia drilled a corner 3-pointer to cap an 11-0 run that pushed Houston to that nine-point edge. Howard helped the Rockets carry a 45-39 lead into halftime by grabbing 17 first-half rebounds.
Walker was largely responsible for helping Charlotte build an early lead by running Beverley ragged off screens and getting in the paint for easy conversions. But despite holding the Rockets to 30 percent shooting in the first quarter, the Bobcats failed to extend beyond a six-point advantage as their interior workhorse, center Al Jefferson, struggled to score efficiently with Omer Asik and Howard splitting defending duties.
Jefferson finished with 13 points and eight rebounds, but he missed 13 of 19 shots. After sitting out the bulk of the preseason with an ankle injury, Jefferson was worn down by the tag-team duo Houston offered inside. Asik grabbed 14 rebounds and, like Howard, blocked two shots.
"That's part of the NBA, and they did a good job fronting me, and it's always tough to keep those big boys off the boards, but that's part of the game," Jefferson said. "It's the best of the best."
NOTES: Few players around the league underwent a more dramatic change of fortunes than Beverley, an unheralded midseason pickup from Russia last year and now a member of the starting lineup. "I'm just a firm believer in hard work pays off," Beverley said. ... The Rockets' experiment of playing centers Howard and Asik simultaneously is a league-wide talking point. "It'll be different for him because as talented as he is and as good of instincts as he's had, he's never done that," Clifford said of Howard defending against power forwards. ... Howard and Asik combined to average 32.6 rebounds per 36 minutes in three preseason games.