HOUSTON — This is how Dwight Howard plays when he’s healthy.
Howard had 17 points and a career-high-tying 26 rebounds in his Houston debut, James Harden added 21 points and the Rockets cruised to a 96-83 win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday night.
Howard spurned the Lakers to sign an $88 million deal with Houston, joining Harden and a team that made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2009.
He said he rushed back too quickly from offseason back surgery last year and never felt quite right in his one disappointing season with Los Angeles. He believes he’s returned to form since arriving in Houston and on Wednesday night he showed it.
When asked if he could have had a game like this last season, he chuckled.
“Physically, I doubt it,” he said. “Not the way I did tonight.”
He said there were times last season that he just couldn’t do things he was used to doing.
“My mind was at the ball, but my body was still on the other side,” he said. “I couldn’t do it. I’m a lot healthier than I was last season.”
It was the 63rd 20-plus rebound game of his career, but he was hoping for more.
“I really was trying to get 30,” he said. “I said coming in tonight that I wanted to get 30 rebounds. I was upset that I didn’t do it, but I’ll try the next game.”
The Rockets led by four points in the fourth quarter before using a 14-4 run to extend the lead to 86-72 with about 3½ minutes left.
Harden tossed an alley-oop to Howard for a dunk during that span. The crowd roared as Howard pointed and smiled at his new teammate.
“He was amazing,” Harden said. “Running the floor, rebounding the basketball … and finishing the basketball. You know, doing what he does. He’s a game changer.”
Another dunk by Howard, this one a two-handed slam, capped the spurt.
Howard didn’t want to talk too much about how big this first game was after his offseason talk of joining the Rockets to help them win championships.
“I didn’t want to put any pressure on myself,” he said. “I just wanted to go out there and play and have fun and get back to being who I am as a player. I think when you focus too much on that and what everybody else is saying that’s when you don’t play like you want to play.”
Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said dealing with both Harden and Howard was difficult.
“They played to their strengths and we weren’t able to hold them when we needed to,” he said.
The Bobcats were led by Josh McRoberts, who had 15 points.
Houston coach Kevin McHale stayed with the big lineup he first used late in the preseason with 7-footer Omer Asik at center and Howard at power forward. But he switched things up and started Patrick Beverley over Jeremy Lin at point guard.
Beverley injured his ribs in the second quarter and didn’t return. Lin received stitches to his chin, but returned to the game. Harden was dealing with a sore wrist and back, but said he’d be OK by Houston’s next game on Friday.
Beverley finished with five points and Lin added 16.
Francisco Garcia had five 3-pointers and finished with 19 points.
Al Jefferson started after missing most of the preseason with a sprained right ankle. Jefferson, who signed a three-year, $41 million deal in the offseason, had 13 points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes.
“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,” he said.
Houston led by eight points after a putback layup by Howard early in the third quarter. Jefferson got the Bobcats going after that, scoring four points in a 7-2 run to cut the lead to 51-48.
A 3-pointer by McRoberts about three minutes later got Charlotte within 57-56. But Lin answered with a 3-pointer that was the first of six straight points for Houston, which pushed the lead to 63-56.
Houston led 67-61 at the end of the third quarter.
Charlotte is looking to bounce back from a terrible two-year stretch where the team posted an NBA-worst 28-120 record. They added Jefferson and drafted Cody Zeller with the fourth overall pick in an attempt to bolster the lineup.
Zeller had two points and four rebounds in about 15 minutes.
Howard was given what at first was called a flagrant foul after what looked like a light push at the midsection of McRoberts with about two minutes remaining in the first half. McRoberts got in Howard’s face after the foul before teammates pulled him away. The play was reviewed and changed to a personal foul, but Howard went to the bench anyway.
McRoberts made both free throws and Howard returned in the third quarter.
76ers 114, HEAT 110
PHILADELPHIA — Spencer Hawes scored 24 points and hit the winning basket late in the fourth quarter to lead the Philadelphia 76ers past the Miami Heat 114-110 Wednesday night.
The Sixers were strong from the opening tip, they made their first 11 shots and raced to a stunning 26-4 lead. The Heat erased the deficit in the third quarter and appeared to take control behind LeBron James.
Hawes hit a 3-pointer, then a driving layup for a 109-108 lead with 2:01 left.
SPURS 101, GRIZZLIES 104
SAN ANTONIO — Kawhi Leonard had 14 points, Tony Parker added 13 points and nine assists, and San Antonio got off to a strong start after last season’s disappointing loss in the NBA Finals.
The Spurs set a franchise record while outscoring the Grizzlies 30-7 in the second quarter.
Boris Diaw had 14 points and Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills each had 12 points. Tiago Splitter had 11 points and eight rebounds for San Antonio.
T-WOLVES 120, MAGIC 115, OT
MINNEAPOLIS — Kevin Love had 31 points and 17 rebounds and hit the game-tying 3-pointer with 10.2 seconds left to force overtime in Minnesota’s victory over Orlando.
Ricky Rubio had 13 points, 11 assists and three steals for the Timberwolves, who survived a major scare from a young and rebuilding team.
Arron Afflalo had 28 points and nine rebounds and Nikola Vucevic had 22 points and 16 rebounds for the Magic. Orlando was playing on the second night of a back-to-back, but led by three with 12.5 seconds to play.
WARRIORS 125, LAKERS 94
OAKLAND, Calif. — Klay Thompson scored a career-high 38 points and Golden State whipped Los Angeles in the Warriors’ season opener.
Thompson finished 15 of 19 from the floor, including 5 of 7 from 3-point range. Golden State led by 19 at the half, 33 at the end of the third quarter and 35 early in the fourth.
David Lee added 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists, and Stephen Curry had 10 points and six assists as the Warriors trounced a rebuilding Lakers team playing without Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.
CAVALIERS 98, NETS 94
CLEVELAND — Anderson Varejao scored with 28 seconds left — off an assist from Kyrie Irving — to send Cleveland over remodeled Brooklyn in coach Mike Brown’s first game back with the Cavaliers.
Varejao’s jumper gave the Cavs a 93-91 lead, and Irving, who finished with 15 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds, made four free throws in the final 14 seconds to help Cleveland put it away.
THUNDER 101, JAZZ 98
SALT LAKE CITY — Kevin Durant scored 22 of his 42 points from the free throw line, including a pair with 6.4 seconds remaining, to lift Oklahoma City over Utah.
Reggie Jackson scored 14 points and had two clutch free throws of his own with 10.5 seconds to play. Thabo Sefolosha also had 14 points for the Thunder.
RAPTORS 93, CELTICS 87
TORONTO — Rudy Gay had 19 points and eight rebounds, Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan each scored 13 and Toronto beat Boston to snap a three-game losing streak in home openers.
Jeff Green had 25 points, Brandon Bass had 17 and Vitor Faverani 13 for the Celtics, who were beaten in new coach Brad Stevens’ NBA debut.
KINGS 90, NUGGETS 88
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — DeMarcus Cousins had 30 points and 14 rebounds to give Sacramento fans plenty more to cheer about in a season-opening victory over Denver.
KNICKS 90, BUCKS 83
NEW YORK — Carmelo Anthony had 19 points and 10 rebounds, making a pair of baskets in a finishing run after the Knicks had blown a 25-point lead, and New York beat Milwaukee in both teams’ season opener.
PISTONS 113, WIZARDS 102
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Greg Monroe had 24 points and 16 rebounds, and new-look Detroit won its season opener in convincing fashion over Washington.
Andre Drummond added 12 points and eight rebounds for Detroit, which is hoping to snap a streak of four straight seasons without reaching the playoffs. The Pistons signed Josh Smith and Chauncey Billups in the offseason and added Brandon Jennings in a trade. Jennings did not play Wednesday — he’s been bothered by a wisdom tooth.
SUNS 104, TRAIL BLAZERS 91
PHOENIX — Goran Dragic scored 26 points and Eric Bledsoe added 22, leading Phoenix over Portland to give Jeff Hornacek a win in his coaching debut.
The Suns’ Miles Plumlee scored 18 points, 16 in the first half, and grabbed 15 rebounds in his first NBA start. He scored 13 points all of last season while mostly riding the bench as a rookie for Indiana.
PACERS 95, PELICANS 90
NEW ORLEANS — Paul George scored 32, George Hill capped a 19-point performance with pivotal 3-pointer in the final minute, and Indiana erased a 16-point deficit in its victory over New Orleans.
Former New Orleans forward David West helped Indiana spoil the home opener for the rebranded Pelicans by hitting four free throws in the final 1:06 and finished with 12 points. Lance Stephenson scored 16 points for the Pacers, who had opened their season a night earlier with a victory over Orlando.