Orlando Magic fans showered Dwight Howard with boos when Amway Center's public-address announcer introduced each Houston Rockets starter. In the first quarter, the fans continued to boo whenever Howard caught the ball.
But the jeers' intensity diminished as the game continued. The boos eventually petered out with a whimper.
The Magic's performance mirrored their fans' volume. The team started off strong, then faded just as James Harden began to hit shot after shot. The Rockets overcame a 14-point deficit early in the second quarter and beat the Magic 101-89 to send Howard back to Texas with a grin on his face.
"I think last year was a little bit more emotional, coming back here and seeing a lot of old faces," Howard said. "But this year, we just wanted to come in and get a good win."
Even playing on the second night of a back-to-back, the Rockets (42-19) simply had much more firepower than the Magic (19-44), who suffered from the absences of guards Victor Oladipo and Jameer Nelson.
"Our defensive intensity kind of slipped coming out of the half," swingman Arron Afflalo said. "We never really regained it."
Howard was played almost to a draw by his Magic counterpart, Nik Vucevic, but Howard still finished with 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting. He also grabbed 13 rebounds.
Harden — the superstar teammate Howard never had in Orlando — scored a game-high 31 points.
"It's real disappointing," said Magic forward Tobias Harris, who made just three of his 12 shot attempts.
"We started off so well. And, in the third quarter, we just didn't get it going. I'll take a lot of this on myself. I didn't come play for my team. So a game like this is disappointing even more because I let my team down tonight."
The game drew an announced crowd of 16,012 people — far short of the arena's sellout capacity of 18,846. Even at its loudest, the boos paled in comparison to the boos Howard received when he returned to Staples Center this season on Feb. 19 — the first time he faced the Los Angeles Lakers in L.A. since he left the Lakers via free agency.
On Wednesday night, the booing receded as the game continued. Howard faced only a smattering of courtside hecklers. Late in the first quarter, as Howard was on the bench after he was subbed out, one fan yelled, "Stan Van Gundy, baby!" That, of course, was a reference to Howard's old head coach — the head coach Howard wanted replaced.
At the end of the first quarter, as a part of their ongoing 25th-anniversary celebration, the Magic honored Howard with a video montage of some of his best highlights from his eight seasons with the franchise.
Howard watched from a seat on Houston's bench, and he sat there stone-faced as many fans booed.
"People are upset that I left, so they're going to boo," Howard said after the game.
"They're going to let their frustrations out. That's totally understandable. But I appreciate all the fans that did cheer — all the fans that have been fans of myself and this team from Day One. I had some great years here, and the reason I left had nothing to do with the fans or anything like that."
Orlando was ahead 65-64 with 2:58 left in the third, but Houston scored 11 consecutive points.
The Magic began the fourth quarter down 75-65 and with Doron Lamb, E'Twaun Moore, Adonis Thomas, Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O'Quinn on the floor.
They cut the deficit to 79-76 with 7:32 left.
Then, Rockets coach Kevin McHale subbed his starters back in.
O'Quinn blocked a shot by Howard — prompting the loudest cheers of the night. But the ball sailed out of bounds, and Harden responded immediately by hitting a jumper.
The Rockets had few problems from that point on.
Howard was subbed out before the final buzzer, and he smiled as he walked to the bench. With 30 seconds left, he tossed both of his elbow sleeves to a young Magic fan wearing an Oladipo jersey. The fan caught both sleeves.
The boos were gone.
And at least one Magic fan left the arena with a smile on his face.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun