ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Dwight Howard received the worst reception of his career last season when he made his initial return to the city that was his NBA home for eight seasons.
This time, for his second trip, he was wearing yet another jersey and met by a similarly hostile crowd. But once again, there was no pity taken on his former team.
James Harden scored 31 points, including 25 in the second half, and the Houston Rockets dug out of a double-digit, first-half hole to beat the Orlando Magic 101-89 on Wednesday night.
Howard added 19 points and 14 rebounds as the Rockets dominated inside, outscoring the Magic 58-26 in the paint.
“I think last year was a little more emotional, coming back here and seeing a lot of old faces,” said Howard, who is now 3-1 against the Magic as a member of the Lakers and Rockets. “But this year, I just wanted to come in and get a good win.”
Houston trailed in the second quarter by as many as 14 points, but battled back to win for the 13th time in 15 outings. Howard scored 11 points in the third quarter, connecting on five of his six field-goal attempts, to help the Rockets take 10-point lead into the fourth.
Houston won at Miami on Tuesday, and will have a chance to beat the Eastern Conference’s top team when they host Indiana on Friday.
“We started off slow, and then from that point on we were pretty solid,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “Our defense was really good in the second and third (quarters), and then we got the game back under control.”
Arron Afflalo led the Magic with 18 points. The Magic dropped to 0-2 this season against the Rockets.
Orlando played without Jameer Nelson and Victor Oladipo. Nelson was out sick and Oladipo missed his first game of the season with soreness in his left ankle.
The Magic’s second unit surged at the start of the final period, and cut the deficit to three and prompted the Rockets to quickly re-insert their starters. Harden immediately scored five straight points, and Terrence Jones added a layup to push Houston’s lead back up to 86-76 with 5:37 to play.
Orlando never got closer than eight points the rest of the way.
“It’s real disappointing because we started off so well,” Magic forward Tobias Harris said. “The third quarter, we just didn’t get it going. I take a lot of this on myself. I didn’t come and play for my team, so a game like this is disappointing even more because I let my team down.”
It’s been nearly two years since the Magic traded Howard to the Lakers to end his eight-season run in Orlando. But clearly their fans haven’t forgotten the tumultuous final season in Orlando.
Magic fans greeted Howard with a round of boos during player introductions and with another chorus the first time he touched the ball once the game tipped off.
Howard briefly silenced them, slamming down a dunk on the Rockets’ first possession.
It was one of his few early highlights, though, as the Magic rode hot early shooting and jumped out to a 14-point first-quarter advantage on the way to a 48-41 halftime lead.
The Magic did honor Howard, with a video tribute on the scoreboard between the first and second quarter as part of the team’s season-long 25th anniversary celebration. But even that was met with sporadic boos from fans.
Howard said before the game that he thought the video package could bring about some emotion. He was on the bench when it was played, but managed a slight smile as the booing persisted.
It continued whenever Howard touched the ball, and he struggled at different points in the half, finishing with just seven points.
Orlando started the half connecting on 10 of its first 14 field-goal attempts. That cooled to 44 percent by halftime, with Houston holding a 26-18 advantage on scoring inside the paint.
That trend continued in the second half, and the Rockets picked it up by forcing 12 turnovers. The Magic finished the night with 17.
“We stayed focused tonight,” Howard said. “Orlando came out and made all their shots. I think at one point they were shooting 60 percent from the floor. Instead of us pointing the finger, we just stayed together.”
Notes: Oladipo had been the only Magic player to appear every game this season before Wednesday. Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said the rookie’s injury doesn’t stem from a particular incident, but is just general soreness. … Former NBA player Grant Hill sat courtside.