Houston, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - Dwight Howard showed why he was the most coveted free agent of this past offseason, matching a career high with 26 rebounds in his Houston debut to help the Rockets to a 96-83 season-opening victory over the Charlotte Bobcats at the Toyota Center.
Howard, who inked a four-year, $88 million contract with the Rockets in July after a prolonged courtship by several suitors, added 17 points in his first game with his new team. James Harden totaled 21 points in the win, with Francisco Garcia tallying 19 and fellow reserve Jeremy Lin scoring 16 for Houston.
Behind Howard's efforts and a 14-rebound performance from counterpart big man Omer Asik, the Rockets dominated Charlotte on the glass to the tune of a 54-37 advantage.
"For our team to get out and run we've got to clean the boards and not give teams second chances," Howard said. "We just have to try to hold them to one shot every possession and that way we can get out and run. Our defense was pretty solid tonight."
Josh McRoberts paced the Bobcats with 15 points and Ramon Sessions had 14 in the loss. Al Jefferson, Charlotte's major free-agent pickup over the summer, finished with 13 points and eight rebounds while playing through a sprained ankle.
"I was a little rusty and I most definitely am not in game shape and I missed a lot of shots I would normally make," Jefferson admitted. "I haven't played in two and a half weeks, but it was just good to get back out there."
Houston's season of high expectations got off to a rocky start, as the rebuilding Bobcats scored the game's first six points and led for much of the opening quarter as the Rockets shot just 30 percent (6-for-20) for the period.
The contest remained a tight one for much of the second quarter before Houston began to assert itself over the last six minutes of the frame.
Harden had the first four points of an 11-0 run that staked the Rockets to a 38-29 lead with four minutes left in the half. Shortly afterward, Garcia drained one of his five baskets from 3-point range to put Houston up by a 41-31 count.
Charlotte managed to close the gap to 45-39 at intermission, with Kemba Walker notching all 12 of his points prior to the break, and the deficit was cut to one when McRoberts knocked down a triple with 5:19 left in the third quarter for a 57-56 game.
Though the Bobcats stayed within striking distance for a good portion of the second half, Houston finally started to pull away in the final quarter. The Rockets strung together an 11-2 burst, highlighted by Howard's thunderous alley-oop jam off a Harden give, to extend the margin to 80-68 with under six minutes to play.
Houston maintained a double-digit lead the rest of the way, with Harden pouring in 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting during the fourth quarter.